Dr. Sarah-Anne Schumann, UnitedHealthcare’s chief medical officer for employer and individual health care plans in North Texas and Oklahoma, says telehealth visits are soaring.
The growth of telemedicine is apparent at UnitedHealthcare’s sister company, Optum, which went from 1,000 telemedicine-trained care providers to 5,000 in a matter of weeks. That number is expected to grow to 10,000 providers by the end of April.
In the interview that follows, Schumann, who is a family doctor in addition to her role with UnitedHealthcare, gives us a look at the growth of telemedicine during the coronavirus from the viewpoint of both the insurer and the physician.
How has the acceptance and reliance on telehealth grown given the COVID-19 pandemic?
Telehealth has been around for a long time, and basically what telehealth does is it allows people to see a doctor anywhere and anytime on a mobile device or computer. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can get their medical conditions diagnosed and treated that way. With the coronavirus, now that there’s a lot of risk with going into a doctor’s office — a risk of you exposing other people or you being exposed to coronavirus — more and more doctors’ practices have very quickly scaled up their technology to allow their doctors to provide telehealth.
Can you quantify the growth?
I have some statistics. Seventy-six percent of hospitals can connect patients and care providers using digital and other technology. On the employer side, nearly nine out of 10 employers offer telemedicine to their employees.
When did UnitedHealthcare start allowing for telehealth visits?
We did allow for telehealth before COVID, but our policies have changed. We have much broader coverage since COVID. Our policy now is we are covering telehealth with no cost-sharing at all. That started on March 31. As of now through June 18, we are waiving all cost-sharing for in-network health visits for our Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and our fully insured individual and group health plans. For self-funded employers, they can opt in to telehealth with no cost-sharing.
That’s not just for COVID-related visits, but for absolutely any telehealth visits. It’s not just primary care and urgent care, but also for outpatient behavioral health and physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
Did UnitedHealthcare broaden the coverage because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes. Some primary care offices are closed right now both for safety and because there’s decreased volume for a lot of the businesses. This is a very safe way to get people assessed when they’re feeling sick but not sick enough to go to an emergency room.
It’s my understanding that insurance won’t pay the same for a telehealth visit vs. an in-person doctor visit. Is that true with UnitedHealthcare?
They are covered at a different rate, but there are many ongoing conversations. Right now, with COVID, for the doctors’ practices that have moved over to provide telehealth, they are being reimbursed at the same rate as an in-person visit. Another change, because the doctor’s offices had to pivot so quickly to start offering this, right now, there can even be phone-only visits that are covered.
Typically, do you Facetime or how do the providers get the visuals from the patient?
If you have a smartphone, which most people have, or a tablet or computer, that’s usually how it works. But right now, you can do phone-only visits.
How does a patient find out if their existing doctor is signed up and licensed to practice telemedicine?
Call the practice or go on their website. It’s best to try your own doctor first, but if that doesn’t work, try your (insurance company’s) website and it will connect you with a national provider.
What should employers know about telehealth?
Telehealth, of course, is not for everything. But for simple, urgent medical issues like allergy symptoms or pink-eye or rashes or fever, telehealth is a great way for their employees to access care. It reduces the burden on the health care system and it reduces cost and improves accessibility to care. Another thing for employers to think about is, right now while people are at home, there’s a lot of increased stress and anxiety, and virtual visits can be a way to connect with a therapist or psychologist or psychiatrist.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will cause permanent changes in how people access health care?
A lot of the changes that we are experiencing in society because of the pandemic are going to be permanent changes. Things like people working from home. Some people are more productive when they’re working from home. It’s the same thing with telemedicine. Now that people are introduced to this, I think in the cases where telemedicine is a good substitute, waiting to see the doctor for urgent-care type visits where you don’t need to have a blood test done or get IV medication or things like that, people are going to see that telemedicine is a great substitute.
How to reopen the US, according to Johns Hopkins and Harvard: Test 20 million people a day, hire an army of contact tracers, and expand healthcare coverage
Hilary Bruek reported that experts from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, as well as the former FDA commissioner, have each released their plans for how to reopen the country safely.
The plans suggest the US will need to massively ramp-up its disease testing and tracing capabilities to allow people to return to work and school.
Collectively, the reports suggest the US will need: around 5 million tests a day by July, 100,000 public health workers to contact trace, and a “national infectious disease forecasting center.”
Most Americans are still stuck at home, but a trio of reports, out from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, are starting to lay a foundation for what reopening the country might look like, if done safely.
Though staying inside is certainly keeping more infections at bay right now, it’s not without its costs.
Aside from the strain stay-at-home orders are putting on families, friends and communities, the newfound national quiet means the US is “hemorrhaging $100 billion to $350 billion a month,” according to the new Harvard analysis, which was released on Monday.
A hasty, careless reopening would be a deadly disaster, though.
If everyone rushed back into the streets, hugging, kissing, shaking hands, and entirely abandoning social distancing measures, more than 300,000 people nationwide could die, according to federal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services, first released in a report from the Center for Public Integrity on Tuesday.
That’s why any thoughtful plan to reopen the country must involve massive additional investments in public health, especially the testing and tracing of US coronavirus cases.
Here are the key topline suggestions from the experts for not only emerging from the coronavirus crisis successfully and safely, but also, as the Harvard report put it, becoming a “pandemic resilient” nation.
Harvard’s Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience says more testing is fundamental to recovery
Broadly, the Harvard report suggests the task ahead of us is “bigger than most people realize.”
“We need to massively scale-up testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine—together with providing the resources to make these possible for all individuals,” the authors write.
In the coming months, the US should rapidly ramp up its capacity to test for the coronavirus, eventually testing upwards of 2 to 6% of the population on any given day. (Currently, the US tests around 150,000 people per day, or about 0.04% of the population.) The plan starts with: 5 million tests per day by early June, and continues trending upward towards 20 million tests a day nationwide, by late July. That kind of widespread testing would be on a scale larger than Germany (testing 0.06% of the country per day, with more than 50,000 coronavirus tests), and would even surpass South Korea, which so far has tested more than 1.1% of the country, overall, for COVID-19.
But “even this number may not be high enough to protect public health,” the report authors warn.
“Given that 40% of the economy is already open,” the report says, “our first priority for a massively scaled up pandemic testing program should be to stabilize the essential workforce.” Policy makers should listen to worker voices, the report also said, “because workers have expert knowledge about how to make their jobs safe and when safety-related rules are not being followed.”
Tests will eventually also be needed for others, including:
- Everyone with coronavirus symptoms, and their close contacts.
- People with presumed exposure (healthcare workers, essential workers, etc.)
- Nursing home residents and staff.
- Incarcerated people.
- Companies and schools.
- “Those who have tested negative within a very recent window and those who show immunity in reliable antibody tests (assuming these prove feasible) should be free to return to work,” the report said.
- The authors were cautious about the idea of immunity cards or passports, though. “Certificates of immunity should be used only in contexts where people have equal access to testing and where a recent negative test result provides the same access to mobility as immunity,” the report says. “Any other use of immunity certificates would be likely to violate constitutional equal protection requirements.”
- In order to be able to follow 14-day quarantine orders successfully, people will need to be supported with more job protection and healthcare, the report added.
- The cost of testing and tracing at this scale is an estimated $50 – 300 billion over two years, which, the authors write is still far cheaper than “the economic cost of continued collective quarantine,” at $100 to 350 billion a month.
- A Pandemic Testing Board should also be established by the federal government, the report suggests, with a National Director of Testing Supply appointed to help ramp up testing efforts. “In virtually every successful historical example of such rapid coordination, a central authority has set goals and ensured that each part of the chain meets the interlocking goals required for the chain to succeed,” the report authors add.
There’s just one problem, though: the Harvard approach relies on all coronavirus tests being accurate, but some are not
Claudio Furlan/LaPresse noted that the swab-the-nose-and-throat coronavirus testing delivers about 30% false negatives, which means that roughly 3 in 10 people who have the virus could wrongly assume they don’t after they’re tested, and then could go on to infect others at work or at school.
Coronavirus blood tests, which are meant to determine whether a person has been infected in the past with the coronavirus and developed disease-fighting antibodies, have so far performed much worse than the swab tests, with some operating at just 30% accuracy, the New York Times recently reported.
Johns Hopkins’ ‘National Plan to Enable Comprehensive COVID-19 Case Finding and Contact Tracing in the US’ adds an army of contact tracers to the Harvard testing plan
The goal of deploying thousands of contact tracers across the US, the report authors write, is to “find every COVID-19 case in the midst of a national epidemic … and then work quickly to contain spread through intensive case and contact tracing interventions,” by warning others who might’ve been exposed to those sick people to stay home.
“This entire operation has never been done before,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday, as he announced during a news conference that his state would be partnering with Johns Hopkins to roll out a new army of contact tracers in the tri-state area, to the tune of $10 million.
“You’ve never heard the words testing, tracing, isolate before,” Cuomo said. “No one has. We’ve just never done this.”
Here’s how the plan could work, nationwide:
- Hire “an extra 100,000 contact tracers across the United States,” the report says. “While this figure may be stunning, it is still the equivalent of less than half the number [of contact tracers] employed in Wuhan,” the authors point out.
- Contact tracers will need to be trained by existing state and territorial public health departments on: disease transmission, principles of case isolation and quarantine, ethics of public health data collection and use, risk communication, cultural sensitivity, and more.
- The plan could provide jobs for: former government employees, retired public health and public safety workers & medical personnel, medical and public health students, Medical Reserve Corps or Peace Corps members, community health workers, and others “seeking employment—especially those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.” People with good communication and interviewing skills would be especially well-qualified for the task.
- The new workforce will cost the US an estimated $3.6 billion, and the report authors urge Congress to fund this idea in its fourth stimulus package.
- The cost of not tracing is also high: “It is estimated that each infected person can, on average, infect two to three others,” the authors write. “This means that if one person spreads the virus to three others, that first positive case can turn into more than 59,000 cases in 10 rounds of infections.”
Apple and Google have also released their own plans to make contact tracing and surveillance happen more automatically on our phones
Apple and Google are both working on new apps and other press-of-a-button opt-in functionalities for phones that would harness Bluetooth technology to track where we’ve been, and then warn others who’ve been near us, in the event we get sick with the coronavirus, in a new brand of push notification-friendly contact tracing.
The companies promise that “user privacy and security” will be paramount in any forthcoming app design.
Other countries have already tried out similar Bluetooth-reliant tracing techniques, but they’re not always very successful, as you need a large percentage of the population to use them in order to have any major impact on transmission.
Scott Gottlieb’s ‘Road Map to Reopening’ from the American Enterprise Institute adds in the element of a weather forecasting service for pandemics
James Gathany reviewed that Scott Gottlieb reviewed the “Road Map to Reopening” from the American Institute and reported that Gottlieb calls it a “National Infectious Disease Forecasting Center,” and says “this permanent federal institution would function similarly to the National Weather Service, providing a centralized capability for both producing models and undertaking investigations to improve methods used to advance basic science, data science, and visualization capabilities.”
Gottlieb also cautioned that we should not rush to return the US to business-as-usual, even as some restrictions are lifted. As schools and businesses reopen, “teleworking should continue where convenient” he said, and “social gatherings should continue to be limited to fewer than 50 people wherever possible.”
‘It’s going to be brutal,’ billionaire Mark Cuban says of economy’s recovery from coronavirus, and ‘there’s no way to sugarcoat it’
‘It’s going to be brutal. There’s no way to sugarcoat it at all.’
That is outspoken billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has been increasingly visible as the National Basketball Association has been temporarily suspended due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Reporter DeCambre reviewed an interview with Mark Cuban with Maria Bartiromo. Cuban, speaking with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo, explained why he thought the recovery from the economic fallout wrought by the illness caused by a novel coronavirus strain could be a long and ugly one for the average American and small businesses in particular.
“It’s going to be brutal. There’s no way to sugarcoat it at all. And when we get to the other side, companies are going to be operating differently,” Cuban said on the business network.
The entrepreneur, who boasts a net worth of $4.3 billion, according to Forbes, says that challenges for businesses are manifold and include additional costs that will be incurred to sanitize and retrofit spaces as nearly shutdown economies attempt to reboot after a virus-imposed hibernation.
“Companies are going to have to be agile … Companies are going to have to build from the bottom up,” Cuban said.
The “Shark Tank” star said he remains confident that some normalcy will return in two to three years but predicts that investors and business owners will need to endure some pain to get to the other side.
His comments came as Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying in an interview published on Tuesday that “there’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.”
The deadly contagion that was first identified late last year in Wuhan, China, has, infected more than 2.6 million people globally and killed about 179,000, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, as of Wednesday morning.
On Thursday, investors and others will be watching for a House vote on a nearly $500 billion aid package for small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, after the Senate passed the measure on Tuesday.
The passage of the bill and the possibility of restarting stalled economies may be conferring some optimism on markets, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +1.10%, the S&P 500 SPX, +1.39% and the Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +1.64% all closing sharply higher Wednesday.
That said, Cuban believes that small businesses may require at least a third installment of funds to operate through the crisis, and he is looking to invest in companies that sit outside the criteria for obtaining government-backed loans.
“We haven’t talked about those companies that are 501 and up. They are suffering the most,” he said, referring to language that stipulates that businesses need to have 500 or fewer employees to qualify for the small-business recovery funding.
So, when do we really reopen the economy and back to the “new” normal and do we use scientific data? I think as we can see we need data based on more testing, but the testing has to be accurate and more sensitive and then we need comprehensive contact tracing and case follow-up tracing. Also, what technology will we use for contact tracing and could it be the use of APPS on our phones or other home health and fitness wearables or other real time monitors?
This technology needs to integrate multiple longitudinal electronic medical records across all sources including healthcare providers and healthcare facilities, labs, clinics, pharmacies, long-term care facilities, etc. with nationwide coverage and interoperability and more important it needs to be HIPPA compliant to respect personal information.
Big wishes and needs, which will lead the way to solutions and attaining our goals of defeating COVID-19 and also prepare the US for whatever the next possible pandemic may raise its ugly head!