Supporting Care Teams Through Omicron with Steth IO

With 75.3M cases of COVID-19 as of February 1st, providers across the country are facing added difficulties in space, staffing, and triage as they struggle to adapt to the surges in infection caused by the Omicron variant.

Implementing solutions that address these challenges is not only important to ensuring continuity of patient care, but to reducing long-term care team burnout.

The difficulties faced as a result of Omicron

Since the start of the pandemic in February of 2020, 18 percent of healthcare workers have quit their jobs—and an additional 12 percent have been laid off—due to the stress of the pandemic, burnout, and insufficient pay.

With an already limited workforce, and rising numbers of healthcare workers becoming infected with the highly-contagious Omicron variant, many medical assistants and nurses today are being split between three or more providers. Not only does this increase risk of burnout, but it creates additional rooming shortages for taking needed patient vitals and work-ups prior to provider evaluations. 

Telehealth can help alleviate these challenges—solving for space and staffing shortages and helping providers and health plans successfully navigate and counter surges in infection rates.

Adjusting to infection peaks with telemedicine

Telemedicine supports providers and patients during influxes in infections, like the Omicron variant, by bringing the care directly to a patient—reducing need for both clinical space and staff. For example, by facilitating at-home visits, clinics decrease the risk of infection from overcrowded waiting rooms and reduce the need for reception staff at the front desk.

Unfortunately, where traditional telemedicine solutions fall short is in being able to deliver clinically meaningful visits. Without the ability to take key vitals remotely, the quality of care providers are able to deliver is limited. Additionally, many of these platforms require significant cost and IT lift, causing additional administrative burden on already overwhelmed staff.

Steth IO supports providers in overcoming both the challenges brought upon by Omicron and the shortcomings of traditional telemedicine platforms through Telaspot: an intuitive platform offering remote vital monitoring.

Addressing the surges in Omicron with Steth IO

The Steth IO Telaspot delivers unique, innovative technology that facilitates remote patient examinations—not just remote visits.

With a stethoscope “Spot” device designed to work with existing patient smartphones, the Telaspot platform allows for remote examination of breathing, heart rate, and other vitals key to accurately diagnosing and triaging cases. By mimicking in-person clinical workflows, care teams are able to deliver meaningful remote care without having to relearn processes during stressful staff shortages. Furthermore, the platform can be implemented easily, requiring minimal IT lift, for seamless integration into both systems and workflow.

Such technology is especially useful for implementing hospital at home programs—allowing healthcare providers to both see and evaluate patients meaningfully during times of maximum capacity. With Omicron leaving more than half of states at or beyond 80% ICU capacity, solutions like Steth IO prove critical to reducing burdens on the acute healthcare system and addressing shortages of staff and space—all without sacrificing effective triaging.

A win for all

Ultimately, when we’re able to implement the right solutions, it’s a win for all involved.

With solutions like Steth IO, providers and care teams can benefit from reduced burden during times of pandemic and solve key challenges of space and rooming. Health plans benefit as members are able to receive appropriate triaging from symptom onset—reducing unnecessary high-cost utilization and facility crowding. Finally, patients win as they’re able to receive care at home—eliminating risk of exposure during travel to appointments or while waiting in overcrowded clinics or emergency departments—without compromising their quality of care.

What COVID-19 regulations have lead to the progression of the telemedicine movement, and how we can ensure that telehealth continues to grow

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a complete disruption of our healthcare system. As infection risk grew, news reports of hospitals unable to accommodate the growing number of COVID patients were widespread.

In reality, the very early days of the pandemic looked different. According to a study published by the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, ED visits in March and April of 2020 were down 42 percent, and additional surveys found that in-clinic visits dropped to 20-30 percent of their usual volume.

Why? The emergence of telehealth.

The progression of telemedicine as a result of COVID-19

COVID-19 fueled rapid development and adoption of quality telemedicine solutions to provide a broader range of health services.

In March 2020, telemedicine visits rose by over 1000 percent year over year as both patients and providers moved to quick adoption of telehealth. Since then, use of telemedicine has remained high—even outside peak periods of COVID-19. This achievement, completed in months, would normally take a decade to accomplish and would be impossible without the recent changes in healthcare regulations.

CMS changes impacting telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic

CMS restrictions previously barred widespread telehealth use in many Medicare and Medicaid populations. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a shift in these regulations, with CMS allowing telehealth visits to be originated from a patient’s home and be reimbursed at the same rate as an in-person visit.

These shifts allowed patients living in rural and urban communities the same access to telehealth and made telemedicine a financially viable choice for providers through parity of payment.

Additional administrative changes were made outside the CMS scope that furthered the growth of telemedicine. These included the removal of cross-state restrictions on medical licenses for telemedicine visits and a relaxation of HIPAA regulations to facilitate information sharing across providers for improved continuity of care.

The results of change: Improved care at reduced costs

The current pandemic serves as a pilot for telehealth, ultimately proving that remote care brings numerous benefits—including improved cost and quality of care. This is especially true for telehealth platforms like Steth IO that rival in-person visits by offering full remote examination capabilities in addition to traditional telemedicine audiovisual functionality.

In addition, telemedicine surpasses in-person care with its ability to provide timely access to care. Patients who struggle to get in and see a provider due to limited exam rooms and appointments—or personal inability to take time off work, travel, or find childcare—can receive needed care when and where they need it, reducing the risk of condition exacerbation and high-cost utilization.

Reducing costs of care through telemedicine

Insurers and providers are reducing costs with the minimal overhead required for digital and remote health visits. Currently, 88 percent of studies show that telemedicine is an effective tool for achieving meaningful cost savings compared to conventional lines of care.

But even this decrease in overhead is minimal to the long-term cost savings both insurers and patients will see as patients are more effectively triaged—reducing the need for walk-in clinics as well as high-cost ED utilization and readmissions. When the cost of technology implementation is covered through government grants or funding from innovative programs like VBID, those savings are even more significant.

Continuing to improve healthcare post-pandemic through telemedicine

Telehealth is here to stay, but its strength and reach will depend on maintaining a number of the regulations and “wins” that facilitate its current widespread use. With the right policies in place, telehealth can be the default system of care—guaranteeing better access to healthcare across populations and ensuring infrastructures are in place to provide consistent, quality care, even in the event of another public health crisis.

Improving and maintaining beneficial telehealth policies post-covid

The relaxed HIPAA regulations will ultimately need to return to their former stringencies, but other regulations created for telehealth mid-pandemic should be considered for long-term adoption as we move forward.

For example, robust telemedicine platforms with diagnostic capabilities like that provided by Steth IO and its Spot device have proven to be an acceptable match for in-person care and should be billed and reimbursed as such. Code classifications may differ, but ultimately telehealth payments need to remain reimbursable in parity with traditional clinic visits.

In addition, the medical licensure restrictions across state lines may go back into effect, but we now have goals that we can strive for in seeking out a national healthcare telehealth license or increased reciprocity between state licenses for telehealth.

Telehealth as the new normal

The U.S. is well-positioned to make all healthcare visits, by default, a remote healthcare visit. Even now, roughly 70 percent of clinical visits taking place—both in primary care and in many specialties—could already be taking place effectively with telemedicine.

Using the innovation momentum gathered from the current pandemic to create long term change in how insurers and providers think about, utilize, and advocate for telemedicine—both within the healthcare system and through patient outreach—can open doors for a quality and cost-effective solution for addressing, diagnosing, and treating many conditions. This ultimately strengthens our health system, reduces the cost of care, increases the quality of care, and improves the access for care across populations for better overall health outcomes.

Improving Telehealth Effectiveness Through Vitals

How providers are overcoming the downfalls of traditional audio-visual telehealth with a single smartphone plug-in

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for rapid acknowledgment and adoption of telehealth services across the country, and the new CMS policies for 2021 suggest this adoption could be long-term—even once the pandemic ends.

For organizations looking to expand their telehealth services, the top-down support being given from government agencies makes this the perfect time to strengthen telehealth and remote patient monitoring options by overcoming traditional digital health downfalls and increasing security to better serve populations with chronic and acute care needs.

Vitals are vital: bridging gaps through real-time data

While telemedicine offers greater freedom to have doctor visits from the comfort and safety of a patient’s home, concerns that virtual visits are unable to complete key components of check-ups—such as listening to heart and lung sounds—have posed barriers into long-term adoption.

Mahesh Mulumudi, MD, practicing interventional cardiologist, and CEO of Steth IO shares:

If you are seeing a patient with COPD by audio visual technology, you can ask questions about whether they are short of breath, but you cannot objectively evaluate how the air flow is in their lungs. You need to listen to the lungs to get a feel for what to do next—whether that’s triaging and helping this patient along at home, sending this patient to the ED, or referring the patient to another type of therapy. And that is just one example of a condition where this type of real time active listening to the lungs might make a difference in both chronic and acute care situations.

Steth IO—a uniquely blended hardware and software technology—is bridging this gap. Its remote cardiopulmonary monitors allow physicians to listen to heart and lung sounds as part of real-time virtual visits.

Relying on a small, device-agnostic stethoscope that plugs into patient smartphones, the technology transmits heart and lung sounds—along with visual representations of those sounds—in real time to doctors on the other end of the audio-visual call. This allows the physician to not only check vitals, but have the information needed to reliably identify potential issues and diagnosis appropriate next steps.

Strengthening patient data safety

Concerns about patient privacy continue to cause ongoing concern with telehealth expansion—with over 41 million patient records breached in 2019 (a 48% increase over 2018)—and the federal government temporarily relaxing HIPAA laws during the pandemic.

While telehealth has not been cited as the cause for these breaches, as its use expands, so do fears about meeting HIPAA guidelines and—more importantly—ensuring patient information remains safe.

HIPAA represents a set of laws that organizations agree to uphold, but accountability to those laws is limited. Working with telehealth solutions like Steth IO that are certified through security regulation entities like HITRUST—and adherent to HIPAA laws—can ensure a higher standard of protection and accountability for data shared. In addition, HITRUST certification must be renewed every two years, ensuring ongoing quality control and checks for better data safety.

Telehealth: seeing the benefits beyond the pandemic

While the need for social distancing and face masks will likely subside with the release and wide administration of a vaccine, the importance of live telehealth will not. Remote care—while important for providing safe care during the pandemic—has benefits that reach beyond what traditional brick-and-mortar doctor’s offices are better able to offer.

Telehealth has the potential to fill gaps in lower-acuity care by making it easier for care teams to see more patients with less overhead and exam rooms. Dr. Mulumudi continues:

U.S. healthcare costs and quality of care is hurting because we’re not able to keep up with the volume of patients that need care. Depending on the condition, though, almost 60% to 70% of these needed clinic visits can be done on telemedicine; they don’t really need to come into an office. Using technologies like Steth IO to truly evaluate patients remotely will allow more patients to be seen, evaluated and delivered therapy.

In addition, by bringing the check-ups to patients where they are, remote monitoring technology helps overcome barriers posed by social determinants of health that traditionally prevent vulnerable patients from getting the care they need—leading to condition exacerbation and increased likelihood of a visit to the ER.

When patients are able to complete live check-ups at home or work with devices like Steth IO and their own smartphone, hassles like lack of transportation, finding suitable childcare, or taking two hours off of work become non-existent, increasing the likelihood of the individual getting the appropriate preventative care.

The expansion of digital health offers an exciting frontier for healthcare, and by leveraging available funding, waivers, and reimbursements, implementing safe, effective solutions like Steth IO has become more affordable and profitable than ever. In addition, care costs are reduced through lower overhead with the increase in virtual visits, and more patients receive appropriate preventative care. Ultimately, unnecessary hospitalization is avoided—and patient outcomes improve.