Professional Liability

The Promise of Telemedicine

Ease of access and limitations on usage make this game-changing health care delivery method a popular choice for patients and a palatable risk for underwriters.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 6 min read

Talk to a hospital risk manager in the Midwest and they will say this: “We don’t have enough beds and providers to deliver adequate mental health services to wide swaths of the population.”

Now add in the access issues faced by rural residents to health care services in general. Or the fact that many providers do not take Medicaid patients. Or consider the risk of transporting a combative, fearful autistic child to the doctor’s office; or the fear of attack that a health care provider confronts when treating a potentially violent prison inmate.

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Telemedicine — the ability for a medical provider to consult with a patient in a video conference — seems to present the cure for these societal ailments.

Its use is taking off like a rocket. The global telemedicine market is expected to be a $35 billion industry by 2020. Just two years ago, according to industry studies, there were approximately 20 million telemedicine consultations. That number is expected to increase to about 160 million — an increase of 700 percent — by 2020.

“We’ve been pretty heavily involved in the telemedicine arena for five years now and have seen exponential growth.” — Danny Talley, director of voluntary benefits, HUB

“We’ve been pretty heavily involved in the telemedicine arena for five years now and have seen exponential growth,” said Danny Talley, a Denver-based director of voluntary benefits with HUB.

Talley said ease of access and the fact that many minor afflictions, from colds to skin rashes, can be addressed in a teleconference are some of the keys to that growth.

The approach also lends itself well to mental health treatment, where talking through an issue with a licensed therapist in a video conference closely approximates a face-to-face visit.

At the very least, said Talley, a video conference with a caregiver can help to assess someone’s mental health and determine whether a face-to-face meeting, or some other intervention, might be necessary.

“With psychiatric care, the bulk of it has to do with talking to the patient, asking them questions,” said Njoki Wamiti, a vice president with IronHealth, the health care division of specialty underwriter Ironshore.

“In my opinion, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. Whether it’s via a video or one-on-one, you are still having the same conversation,” she said.

Larry Hansard, regional managing director, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

“A full 50 percent of our clinical encounters have been in the realm of mental health services. This in part relates to the challenges of a serious shortage of mental health providers in the rural areas of our state,” said Dr. Karen Rheuban, a co-founder of the University of Virginia Center for Telehealth. Last year, the center was renamed the Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth in honor of Rheuban’s work to expand health care opportunities through telemedicine.

“In most circumstances, a high quality video conference comports with the standard of care in mental health,” she added.

But as we assess potential liability in this field, let us not confuse a telephone conversation with a video conference conversation. When it comes to establishing a verifiable doctor/patient relationship, they are two very different things.

Rheuban said the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Drug Enforcement Administration have weighed in on the prescribing of Schedule II through Schedule V psychotropic drugs in the absence of a prior in-person visit.

“We are concerned about the risk of establishing a doctor-patient relationship with a telephone encounter alone that results in the prescribing of controlled substances,” she said.

The UVA program offers telehealth services across the health care continuum, from prenatal to palliative care, to acute care, consultations, follow-up visits and remote patient monitoring. It offers live video-based visits and store forward technologies.

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As an example, ophtalmologists with the UVA program have trained community providers to obtain retinal images that are sent to them to screen patients with diabetes for retinopathy, the No. 1 cause of blindness in working adults.

Arthur J. Gallagher Regional Managing Director Larry Hansard, who suffers from frequent upper respiratory infections, recalled his own experience with telemedicine. “The physician looked at my throat via the real time video capability on my smartphone,” Hansard said. There was a prescription waiting for him at the drugstore in 10 minutes.

Compare that experience with having to wait days for an appointment, then taking off from work, driving a half hour or more, waiting to be called in to see the doctor and then driving back to the office.

“Why haven’t we been doing this forever?” Hansard asked.

Minimal Loss History

Telemedicine is growing quickly, so its loss history has yet to be well-established. As things stand, more than 70 percent of telemedicine interactions are for fairly common conditions.

“We are not seeing high-severity-type claims, most of the telemedicine usage we are currently seeing is for low-severity illnesses,” said Hansard.

The loss statistics that are available for telemedicine professional liability losses support Hansard’s statement.

“Licensure is the big risk for telemedicine providers, as they attempt to match a patient with a physician licensed in the state in which the patient is seeking care.” —  Larry Hansard, regional managing director, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

A 2015 report from the Physician Insurers Association of America revealed that of 94,228 medical professional liability claims in the PIAA’s Data Sharing Project (DSP) for the years 2004 through 2013, 196 claims were connected to telehealth.

The average indemnity loss for a telehealth claim was $303,691, compared to $328,815 for all MPL claims within the DSP.

“Licensure is the big risk for telemedicine providers, as they attempt to match a patient with a physician licensed in the state in which the patient is seeking care,” Hansard said. Many health care insurers will exclude coverage for a claim if it’s proven that the provider was not licensed in the same state where the patient received care.

Imagine a scenario where a patient is a passenger in a car that crosses the state line between Texas and New Mexico and is talking to a telehealth provider on the phone. If the provider is licensed in Texas, but not New Mexico, and there is an adverse event, the claim might not be covered.

“There are so many scenarios where people could cross state boundaries while on a telemedicine exchange,” Hansard said.

Hansard said most telemedicine providers are using smart technology so that they can track patients. But some aren’t.

“Some of the telemedicine providers are relying on older technology and they take the patient’s word for where they are located at the time of treatment,” Hansard said. “This could lead to problems if the patient misrepresents their location and the physician is not licensed in that particular venue.”

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Hansard looks at the international use of telemedicine optimistically.

Imagine you are a supervisor on an oil rig in Venezuela. If you had the opportunity, would you rather consult with your doctor back in Texas via a teleportal, or have a face-to-face consultation with someone you don’t know as well.

“I understand that there are certain countries that will grant a U.S. doctor automatic privileges in those countries,” Hansard said. “If that’s true just imagine the possibilities for some of these telemedicine companies to set up shop there.” &

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]