The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many businesses operate. The need for social distance – maintaining a two-metre physical distance from others – has completely disrupted what would otherwise be considered “normal.”
This is a challenging time as businesses and personal services are closed as a result of public health orders. The good news is that many health care providers and paramedical practitioners are still providing services while adhering to social distancing directives. They’re providing the services virtually.
Virtual Health Care
“Virtual healthcare” (it used to be known as “telehealth”) refers to virtual visits between a patient and practitioner using real-time video conferencing or telephone. Voice, data, images and info are transmitted so that practitioners can “meet” virtually with their patients, instead of physically.
It’s not so new
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust virtual healthcare into the spotlight, it’s actually not so new. Healthcare providers all around the world have used or tested virtual healthcare long before the pandemic began. It’s been used as an effective way of delivering services to patients in remote geographical locations. It’s been used as a matter of convenience for others. As such, some providers already offered virtual “visits” before the pandemic. Now, many more are providing this option.
Supporting your health while social distancing
Health care practitioners are using a variety of tools to deliver their service and treat patients while still adhering to social distancing directives. It really depends on the practitioner as to whether it’s possible, and what tools make the most sense.
In general, some of the tools used are:
- Video conferencing software
- Text messaging and email exchanges
- Online articles and resources
- Pre-recorded videos (for example, demonstrating physiotherapy exercises applicable to a specific client)
- Online journals or activity trackers that patients fill out so their practitioner can monitor progress
- Telephone consultations
Obviously, some services are still effective while delivered virtually, while others are not. For example, consulting with a Registered Dietician virtually makes sense. No physical examination is required, and information can be effectively communicated via telephone or video conference. In contrast, receiving services from a Registered Massage Therapist via telehealth just wouldn’t work. A massage therapist provides hands on/physical manipulation of muscles and tissues, which cannot be provided with a virtual or “hands off” interaction.
Virtual Treatments and Employee Benefits
Many healthcare providers and practitioners that are offering virtual services can still be covered under your employee benefits plan. Consult your benefits handbook for coverage information and whether a specific service will be covered, but there are some general guidelines that many practitioners must follow.
To be covered under a benefits plan, the practitioner must adhere to standards for virtual treatment. The patient must have an existing relationship with the practitioner. This means they must already have a clinical file with the health practitioner, including a record of initial assessment within the preceding 12 months. This is because, in most cases, a virtual visit is not a good fit for an initial assessment, whereas following up appointments for some services can still be effectively delivered.
The health practitioner has numerous responsibilities that must be upheld during a regular visit. Generally speaking, in order to be eligible for coverage those responsibilities must still be met during a virtual visit. Additional consideration may need to be given on how to uphold these responsibilities during a virtual visit. These responsibilities include:
Privacy – the health practitioner is responsible for ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of a patient’s personal health information. For a virtual visit, this means that the technology used for the virtual visit must be secure. Practitioners must also ensure that the location from which they are delivering the virtual visit does not compromise the patient’s privacy and confidentiality (for example, they’re delivering the service from their living room while someone else is able to hear or see the interaction).
Patient Files – The practitioner must continue to maintain clinical files for the patient, even though they are not physically meeting with them.
Follow up consultations and care – The practitioner must provide follow up care and consultation as needed.
Receipt – The practitioner must provide a receipt that includes regular information (for example, the service provided, their registration number, etc.) as well as clearly stating that the service was provided “virtually”.
Virtual Health Providers and Eligibility
Not all health practitioners are eligible for coverage if the service is delivered virtually.
At present, the following virtual health practitioners are often eligible for coverage (provided they’re meeting standards discussed above). It’s important to consult your benefits handbook for information, and to check with your benefits provider beforehand:
Eligible Virtual Health Care Practitioners:
- Naturopathic Doctor
- Occupational Therapist
- Psychologist/Social Workers/Registered Clinical Counselors/Psychotherapists
- Speech Therapists
Ineligible Virtual Health Care Practitioners:
- Massage Therapist
The standards of service and the eligible health practitioners are subject to change as federal and provincial orders and regulations change.
Good Advice is Key
Remember, it’s important to always follow the advice and orders of your provincial health authority regarding physical distancing.
If you need advice and information about employee benefits, paramedical service eligibility and anything else related to benefit plans, GroupHEALTH Benefit Solutions are here to help.