How Telemedicine May Change the Landscape of Health Care In New Jersey

by Megan R. George

Technological advances such as EMR, remote patient monitoring, and the use of tablet based patient registration have revolutionized the health care industry. Today, a patient can use an app on their phone to schedule an appointment, obtain their medical records, and locate physicians in the area. It is no surprise that over the past five years, telemedicine has become a popular form of treatment for physicians and patients. New Jersey recently unanimously passed legislation that establishes the requirements for the practice of telemedicine in the state of New Jersey. The passage of this legislation signals the importance of telemedicine to the state of New Jersey and the health care field.

The New Jersey bill defines key terms as follows: “health care provider” as an individual who provides a health care service to a patient, which includes, but is not limited to, a licensed physician, nurse, nurse practitioner, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, clinical social worker, physician assistant, professional counselor, respiratory therapist, speech pathologist, audiologist, optometrist, or any other health care professional acting within the scope of a valid license or certification issued pursuant to Title 45 of the New Jersey Statutes; and “Telemedicine” as the delivery of a health care service using electronic communications, information technology, or other electronic or technological means to bridge the gap between a health care provider who is located at a distant site and a patient who is located at an originating site. The term telemedicine, as explained in the bill, does not include “the use, in isolation, of audio-only telephone conversation, electronic mail, instant messaging, phone text, or facsimile transmission.”

The New Jersey legislation sets standards that those providing telemedicine services must follow. Prior to engaging in telemedicine, a provider-patient relationship must be established. The provider must (i) properly identify the patient using, at a minimum, the patient’s name, date of birth, phone number, and address; (ii) disclose and validate the provider’s identity and credentials, such as the provider’s license, title, and, if applicable, specialty and board certifications; (iii) review the patient’s medical history and any available medical records before initiating the telemedicine consult; and (iv) determine whether or not he/she will be able to meet the same standard of care as if the services were provided in person. When necessary, the provider also must refer the patient to appropriate follow up care, including making appropriate referrals for emergency care, if needed.

The newly passed law allows telemedicine to be covered under New Jersey Medicaid and commercial health insurance plans. As currently written, the law does not go as far as to require that the reimbursement rates for telemedicine be equal to the reimbursement rates that would be paid if the service was provided in-person. The language of the bill reads, “The State Medicaid and NJ FamilyCare programs shall provide coverage and payment for health care services delivered to a benefits recipient through telemedicine or telehealth, on the same basis as, and at a provider reimbursement rate that does not exceed the provider reimbursement rate that is applicable, when the services are delivered through in-person contact and consultation in New Jersey.” The language for commercial plans reads the same regarding parity of payments for telemedicine. As expected, the law sets the in-person reimbursement rate as the maximum reimbursement for telemedicine services. The law allows reimbursement to be paid to either the provider or the facility/organization with whom the provider is associated with, depending on the appropriate billing practices.

The emergence and acceptance of telemedicine as a viable option in the health care setting is extremely beneficial to patients who find themselves within the service area of a community hospital. Many community hospitals do not offer the array of service lines that large facilities offer. In situations where time is of the essence, telemedicine saves lives. One example of telemedicine at work in the community hospital setting is with pediatrics. Prior to telemedicine, when a child was brought into an emergency department without pediatric capabilities, the hospital and the patient’s family was faced with quickly transporting the patient to a facility with pediatric capabilities. Often, had the hospital had the ability to diagnose the patient, the transport would not have had to occur. Telemedicine allows the hospital to connect with a pediatric physician at another facility for a quick and accurate diagnosis. It must be noted that once a diagnosis is made, the patient may still require transportation, but the transportation is now only made in situations where it is medically necessary. For other situations, a physician, via telemedicine, can diagnose and prescribe treatment options that can be carried out in the community hospital or through prescription medicines, eliminating the stress and cost of transportation for the patient and the patient’s family.

Teleneurology, another important use of telemedicine, makes prompt neurological care available to patients in even the most remote locations—an important consideration since, with the treatment of stroke symptoms, every second counts. Teleneurology allows a patient, presenting to a hospital without a neurologist on-site, to have his or her symptoms observed by a physician via tele-conference for diagnosis purposes. The diagnosing physician can observe and converse with the patient and obtain close images of the patient’s eyes to determine if the patient is expecting or has experienced a stroke. Ischemic strokes, which are most commonly treated by giving the patient an injection of tissue plasminogen activator (“tPA”). tPA is used to dissolve the blood clot to improve blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood. tPA, while highly effective, must be administered within three hours of the patient experiencing a stroke. Subtracting the time that it takes for a patient to arrive at a hospital for treatment, the patient may now have less than two hours to be given lifesaving medication. Given this shorter timeframe, it is essential for a hospital to quickly and accurately diagnose stroke symptoms. The use of teleneurology gives the patient the best possible chance of receiving a quick diagnosis and obtaining tPA within the three hour timeframe.

Telemedicine can also be utilized in hospitals to facilitate patient discharge. Often, a patient is ready to be discharged, but continues to wait at the hospital until his or her physician can physically discharge the patient from the hospital. For physicians with robust offsite practices, this step may not be immediate. A patient waiting to be discharged can cause patient flow and capacity issues for the hospital and can cause frustration for the patient and their family, ultimately leading to low patient satisfaction scores for the hospital. Allowing a physician to evaluate the patient via telemedicine would alleviate some of these issues. The physician could have a face to face discussion with the patient, asking the necessary questions prior to discharge, while not having to leave his or her office.

As technology advances and health care becomes more reliant on technology, the uses of telemedicine will continue to grow. Telemedicine will become engrained in the culture of providing top level care to patients, regardless of geographical location. Providers seeking to utilize this technology to implement this new means of delivering medical services must be sensitive to the current laws regulating this area and the fact that this area is continually evolving and developing, especially in New Jersey where the law is brand new.