Telehealth Firms Waive Fees During Harvey Emergency

Ken Terry

August 31, 2017

Several telehealth companies are offering free virtual care services via phone or video to people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. The free services from American Well, Doctor on Demand, HealthTap, MDLive, and Teladoc started early this week and will continue through into mid-September. A Teladoc news release did not put an end date on the provision of free virtual visits.

It is unclear how many people in the affected areas know that they can use their smartphones to obtain free medical care. But Mary Modahl, chief marketing officer for American Well, told Medscape Medical News that there has been strong demand for her company's service since it became free on Monday.

Until recently, it was illegal for Texas physicians to remotely diagnose and treat patients with whom they did not have a preexisting relationship. But in May, the Texas legislature passed a bill that allows doctors licensed in Texas to conduct virtual visits with patients whom they have not met in person. The telehealth visit must be audiovisual or use store-and-forward technology in conjunction with an audio-only interaction.

Teladoc, a Texas-based firm, was a key player in the controversy surrounding telehealth before the bill was passed. In the press release about the company's offer of free virtual visits, Lewis Levy, MD, chief medical officer of Teladoc, said, "As hundreds of thousands of Americans are facing a time of need, Teladoc is working to make sure that they can count on readily available access to high quality care, 24/7. Our call center reps and board-certified and state-licensed physicians are standing by to help those families who have been displaced from their doctors and regular routines, but who still need non-emergency medical care."

Among the medical conditions that can be effectively diagnosed and treated remotely, Teladoc said, are sinus problems, respiratory infection, allergies, cold and flu symptoms, and other nonemergency illnesses.

American Well is offering free psychological counseling as well as medical care. Most of the early calls from consumers have been about medical conditions, Modahl said, but she expects more demand for psychological help as the stress and trauma of the disaster sink into the population.

"Defining Moment"

It is also possible, as experts pointed out in a recent New York Times article, that contaminants in the flood waters will lead to many waterborne illnesses and even epidemics in coming weeks.

"This is a situation that is unfolding, and at least for the moment, we're waiving our fees for people who are affected through September 15," Modahl said. "If it's needed for us to address [waterborne illnesses] then, we will."

While the Texas law requires physicians to make their best effort to obtain patients' medical records when they treat them remotely, Modahl said she doubts that will be possible in many cases during the Harvey emergency. However, she said, patients can fill out medical history forms online, and American Well physicians also have access to prescription records via Surescripts.

When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2005, many paper medical records were destroyed, making it difficult to treat patients. Much has changed since then, Modahl noted. Not only do most healthcare providers now have electronic health records and backup systems, she says, but telehealth has emerged as an industry on the back of the smartphone revolution that started after Katrina.

In her view, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is a "defining moment for telehealth. This disaster has shown that when people are trapped in their homes and surrounded by water, they can't travel to care, and local health systems are struggling, if they need to see a medical professional or a psychological counselor, telehealth can really help them."

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