by Chris Regal, AHIP Senior Health Research Associate
October 12, 2018
When Hurricane Florence was forecasted to hit Washington, D.C., I received an alert from my health insurance provider that the storm was coming and could hinder access to care. Despite the incoming storm, I had peace of mind knowing I could still reach a board-certified clinician if I needed to because my health insurance provider offered 24/7 telehealth services during emergencies.
Health insurance providers, hospitals, and technology providers connect patients with the care they need—during normal conditions and especially before, during, and after emergencies such as hurricanes and other disasters. Anthem, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, and Capital BlueCross, for example, offered free telehealth consultations during Hurricane Florence, available to members in the affected states following the hurricane. Read more about Hurricane Florence initiatives on the AHIP website. Leading telemedicine innovators, such as American Well, Teladoc, Doctor on Demand, and MDLIVE (to name a few), have stepped up and made virtual care options available for people in affected areas.
Following the devastating Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, telehealth made it possible for patients to access care despite the inclement conditions. In Harris County in Houston, 97 percent of residents who took medications for tuberculosis continued to do so despite the Hurricane—thanks to telehealth connections with health department staff or nurse care managers. A RAND Corporation study found that in the first weeks following Harvey and Irma, 63 percent of people who used telehealth services were first-time users. Telehealth visits for the management of chronic conditions, advice, counseling and medication refills, and back and joint concerns (including injuries) were more common among those impacted by the hurricanes than in non-emergency situations. And New York-Presbyterian Hospital used its telehealth platform to connect virtually with patients after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, while Nemours Children’s Health System used its virtual care platform to provide pediatric care during Irma.
While telehealth is most closely associated with urgent care needs like colds, rashes, or sore throats, emergencies create different needs for digital health tools. Through telehealth, people can get mental health services to help them cope with the devastation caused by some emergencies; a study from the Department of Veterans Affairs found mental health was one of the most commonly used telehealth services after Hurricane Sandy impacted New York in 2012. Many health insurance providers connect their members with counseling and other behavioral health services via telehealth. For example, videoconferencing has become a crucial tool for delivering mental and behavioral health services. It eliminates some of the privacy and stigma concerns that dissuade people from otherwise obtaining needed care. These digital services are especially important during and after disasters, which can strand people in need and exacerbate existing conditions.
In times of need, health insurance providers, clinicians, and patients can rely on telehealth efforts—they improve patient care and outcomes and even save lives during emergency situations.