A report released this past week from the ANCOR Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy found that telehealth can play an integral role in transforming the healthcare system to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been hearing stories from throughout our community of more than 1,600 community-based disability service providers that the flexibility to leverage telehealth and to deliver supports remotely have been game-changers,” said Shannon McCracken, ANCOR’s vice president for government relations, to Healthcare IT News.
“In some ways, these flexibilities have been enabling providers to address challenges they’ve confronted for years, such as lack of specialized medical care and geographic disparities in the availability of services. But in other ways, these flexibilities are empowering providers to think outside the box to find creative ways of tailoring supports to people’s needs,” McCracken continued.
WHY IT MATTERS
The COVID-19 crisis endangered an already fragile support system for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the report shows.
Social distancing mandates, in combination with personal protective equipment shortages, staffing challenges and financial instability, worsened existing hurdles faced by provider organizations.
“The IDD services system was long suffering the effects of a vicious cycle of inadequate staffing and resources long before 2020; the pandemic simply helped to fan the flames,” said researchers in the report.
However, the public health emergency also acted as an opportunity of sorts – namely, legislative and regulatory flexibilities around telehealth revealed how care can be expanded in new ways.
“For years, telehealth has been improving access to healthcare for traditionally disconnected populations, such as elderly patients, those living in rural areas, and those with lack of access to transportation,” according to the report. “However, access to telehealth was previously limited for people with IDD as regulation failed to keep pace with innovation.
“The ability to utilize telehealth during the pandemic improved access to specialized healthcare, whether for COVID-19-related concerns or routine medical needs that posed greater threats when hospitals and healthcare facilities began treating COVID-19 patients,” it continued.
The report also noted the usefulness of virtual supports, which allowed providers to deliver community programming and connect people to events via video.
“It should be noted that the transition from in-person to virtual supports serves as a perfect example of how flexibility and diversity in services can improve outcomes for people with IDD,” said researchers. “For some, in-person supports elicit the best outcomes; for others, virtual supports help people thrive.”
In the future, report authors encouraged states to continue actively encouraging telehealth visits and the delivery of virtual supports, among other best practices.
On a federal level, it also stressed the importance of alternative payment models in contrast to fee-for-service models.
“Overnight, we were forced to evaluate what is most important and pivot each day to rise to unimaginable occasions. We’ve been calling the plays without any discernible playbook, and in the process we have revealed the fragility of our system – but also the resilience of those who make it work,” read the report.
THE LARGER TREND
Studies have shown that telehealth can be a double-edged sword for people with disabilities.
On the one hand, in-person care can pose its own challenges, including coordinating transportation, arranging caregiver assistance and navigating public spaces – not to mention the potential accessibility hurdles at clinics. Some health systems have relied on telemedicine during the pandemic to continue providing seamless care for patients with disabilities.
On the other hand, telehealth technology design remains inaccessible for many individuals, potentially leading to worse health outcomes for disabled people.
ON THE RECORD
“Whether through group fitness classes, medical appointments with practitioners who specialize in developmental medicine, or skill-building exercises that prepare people to succeed in the workforce, virtual supports and telehealth services are already revealing their transformative potential,” said McCracken.
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