Tag Archives: telehealth

Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic

The news about coronavirus focuses rightly on life and death and the struggles of hospitals, as well the need for social distancing and the suspensions of large gatherings. Emergency measures that last for a few weeks are one thing, but it looks like this crisis may continue for several months. While the media is generally doing a good job of crisis coverage, some aspects of particular interest to nonprofit human services providers are being narrowly covered at best.

For example, arrests by the LAPD are dropping, and many court systems are deferring or dismissing non-felony cases, since no one wants coronavirus to rip through jails. It’s hard to say what lowered policing and low-level case dismissal means: maybe many arrests were bogus in the first place. But maybe they weren’t, and we’re likely going to see substantially increased crime as people adjust to this new normal—most big city cops aren’t arresting people, even for such fairly serious crimes as burglary and car break-ins. It’s also possible that petty crime—and even crime in general—will decline because would-be criminals are at home and either don’t want to get coronavirus themselves, or they know most people are holed up at home, and many of those holed up at home are armed. It’s beyond the purview of our knowledge and subject matter to discuss this in detail, but there’s also a lively debate about whether most crime is premeditated versus simply persons seeing what they perceive as opportunity and then acting on it.

Some incarcerated persons are already being released early; released arrestees and, more importantly, recently released prisoners need something productive to do and to earn legitimate income—which usually means case-managed job training and placement of some kind. We’ve written many funded proposals for services for ex-offenders and, even in good times, this is not an easy population to work with. The unemployment rate is likely 10% and may spike as high as 20% in the coming months, further complicating matters. In the short term, however, there’ll be huge need, and likely lots of grant money available, to provide these services. Training and placement, alway challenging, will be hard, given social distancing, but some nonprofits have to try, perhaps with sufficient social distancing measure and/or tele-case management.

Another issue: thousands of 12-Step Program meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are being cancelled—and these programs are based mostly on in-person peer support. Behavioral health provides will have to suspend in-person individual and group sessions, leaving millions more with SUD/OUD and/or severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) more or less on their own. Add the incredible stressors of job/income loss, stay-at-home orders, and the like to addiction and mental health issues, and a huge human toll is likely. We’ve seen estimates that 10% of the US population has mental health or substance abuse challenges that are mitigated by in-person support. Most people don’t get the same effects from digital communications tools that we do from in-person interaction. Still, this is an opportunity for nimble nonprofits to seek foundation and government grants to establish or scale-up tele-behavioral health services.

Lots of people have realized that shuttered movie theaters may never recover; fewer people are thinking openly about what we ought to be doing with the most vulnerable persons who are facing serious disruptions, on top of the obvious coronavirus disruptions.

Telemedicine and the unstated reason it can save money for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and other providers

You may have read that Walgreens is is shuttering some of its in-store clinic, because the clinics are expensive to operate and, in addition, telemedicine services are taking off. Telemedicine competes with minute clinics, urgent cares, and some primary care offices; right now telemedicine is being vended through a variety of platforms, some of them independent of traditional medical providers (Teledoc is a relatively famous one), while others are affiliated with traditional providers, like FQHCs. The most interesting aspect of telemedicine services might be the one, unstated reason why they’re popular.

The official push towards telemedicine is justified by greater convenience and lower cost. So far, so good: those things are real, as is the nominal improvement in patient satisfaction, but the hidden reason is also revealing: a lot of in-person medical visits aren’t medically necessary and are generated by non-medical desires. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about this in The Elephant in the Brain: Chapter 13 describes how a lot of medicine seems to be generated by patients wanting reassurance from high-status people (doctors) and doctors wanting to enjoy the status that comes from people seeking out their expert knowledge. To be sure, “a lot of medicine” is not the same as “all medicine,” so you need not leave comments about broken bones being mended or cancers being treated.

A lot of medical office visits are costly for patient and doctor, so telemedicine can reduce the waste. In effect, telemedicine often ends up being triage: the distant provider tries to figure out whether something is genuinely wrong with the patient, and whether that thing needs to be seen in person. Almost all primary care providers have seen lots of patients who come in more for hand holding and an encounter with a sage doc than treatment of underlying condition. I haven’t seen studies describing exactly how many medical visits are really boredom, fear, craziness, improbable uncertainty, and the like, but anecdotally it seems to be high, and Hanson and Simler cite estimates in the 20 – 50% range. This is the sort of thing most of your healthcare provider friends won’t admit to strangers or acquaintances, but they may admit it to close friends or after a couple drinks. FQHC CEOs, who we work for, will sometimes admit this to us, their trusted grant writers (in our own way, we are the “trusted sages” in these conversations, reversing the roles).

So telemedicine can save money because it lets people with common colds, loneliness, and similar real or imagined ailments have a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physicians assistant tell them that they’re okay, bill them maybe less than they’d be billed for an in-person office visit, and then the provider can hang up and talk to another person who is also likely okay. Many people with chronic conditions also just need reassurance, direction to a specialist, or a prescription refilled. That can be done in a few minutes over the phone or via a videoconference. Because it’s socially undesirable and even unacceptable to admit that a lot of medicine is not what we typically think it’s about, not much can be done to substantially improve the system at current levels of technology, but offering telemedicine can be an improvement. HRSA has noticed something like this and is now pushing for FQHCs to offer telemedicine. Healthcare now consumed about 18% of GDP, in a $20 trillion economy, or about $3.7 trillion dollars. There’s enormous pressure on almost every player to try and lower costs as a consequence of these unbelievable numbers. One way or another, the average worker is paying about one in every five dollars earned into medicine—whether that dollar is paid to insurance companies, hospitals, or levels of government via taxes. Strangely, though, regulators are letting hospitals merge and form local monopolies and oligopolies, which is an important exception to the lower-cost trend. Telehealth, however, is right on trend.