The legal priorities in telemedicine include protecting the patients’ privacy, informed consent and confidentiality, and conforming to the standards of care, among others.
Telehealth or telemedicine provides the doctors and patients the opportunity to interact, diagnose, and perform certain procedures remotely, with the help of telecommunications services via the Internet, computers, and mobile devices. While the benefits of telemedicine are many, such as reducing hospital occupancy rate, saving a patient’s travel time to the medical facility, and saving costs, there are legal issues not to be ignored.
In a 1996 article written by Kathleen M. Vyborny on the legal issues facing telemedicine, the traditional state-by-state physician licensing system is one of the major barriers to achieving a nationwide telemedical practice. Another cited potential evil of telehealth is telecommunications misuse that likewise raises concerns on privacy protection. This involves the confidentiality of medical records transmitted through electronic networks.
Other legal issues include payment and reimbursement for telehealth consultations and standards of care for telemedical procedures. Despite the article being written 25 years ago, the same legal issues may still pose a concern in today’s telemedicine. Therefore, it’s important to know the legal priorities in telemedicine. Read on to learn more.
- The Patient’s Basic Health Needs
The number one legal priority of patients is to obtain treatment for their basic health needs. More than anything else, healthcare workers are responsible for the health and safety of their patients. Doctors and other healthcare professionals should prioritize the patient’s health above cost-savings or convenience that telemedicine can provide.
- Patient Privacy
Patient privacy is a legal priority in telemedicine. Every patient has the right to know how a telemedicine provider makes use of gathered personal and healthcare data. All healthcare agencies and facilities offering telehealth services should prioritize the patients’ privacy at all times. This is why various policies have been created to safeguard patient privacy, such as the following:
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act: The HIPAA policy establishes national standards, protecting patients’ medical records and any personal health information that applies to health care clearinghouses, health plans, and telemedicine health care providers who perform medical transactions electronically.
- The Patient’s Informed Consent
Informed consent is a written legal document that contains the patient’s permission for a doctor or any healthcare professional to perform medical assessments and procedures. Obtaining a patient’s informed consent is one of the legal priorities in telemedicine—an indispensable legal aspect.
The District of Columbia, along with 38 states in the country, requires patients to provide their informed consent either verbally or in writing before healthcare practitioners can carry out virtual appointments. Hence, a telehealth consent must include details of the risks and benefits of virtual visits, the insurance company and the patient’s financial obligations for treatment, and all security measures to protect the patient’s privacy.
Doctors may have to secure consent in paper or electronic form. If an electronic signature or e-signature program isn’t readily available, healthcare professionals can let patients fax or email their agreements.
- Strict Compliance to the Standard of Care
Healthcare providers should prioritize strict compliance to standards of care. This involves enforcing the same standards in treating a patient face to face. One cannot underestimate the possibilities of any medical complication and the need to refer the patient to a nearby medical facility as necessary.
Balancing patient care and tech in telehealth can be challenging because some telemedicine platforms are too focused on tech, missing the ultimate goal of being able to provide excellent patient care. Telehealth service providers should prioritize long-term patient care instead of being too focused on the tech aspect of telemedicine.
Therefore, there must be clear standard operating procedures or guidelines on how a medical professional should handle patients through telemedicine. They should have a workflow of the following:
- Allowed and disallowed medical procedures to be performed virtually or remotely
- The best time to refer the patient to an actual live doctor or a nearby healthcare facility for further assessment
- How to buy the medications prescribed online
- Follow-up schedules
- How to handle emergencies and possible complications
- Other Patients’ Rights
Telemedicine shouldn’t limit or restrict the rights of the patients, because this alternative method only applies as a supplement or adjunct strategy to already existing ones. It shouldn’t completely replace in any way an actual, live, or physical medical assessment or treatment procedure. When a patient needs to see a doctor physically, then proper referral to an appropriate healthcare facility is a must.
Patients have rights granted and enforced by the law, such as the CCPA and HIPAA. All patients have basic human rights and rights that stem from the ethical practice of medicine. Telemedicine providers must respect a patient’s right to:
- Be treated with utmost respect without discrimination
- Obtain medical records such as medical laboratory and scan results
- Choose the treatment they think is suitable for their medical condition
- Refuse treatment with the freedom to make sound healthcare decisions for oneself
- Make decisions on end-of-life care
- Medical Liability
Various legal considerations affect telemedicine, such as the unavailability of an international legal framework that allows healthcare professionals to deliver patient care services in different countries and jurisdictions. It also includes the risk of healthcare professionals incurring liabilities when offering telemedical services.
This is why healthcare providers should implement efficient ways to avoid and manage the possible medical liabilities that may arise in offering telehealth services. Creating the right strategies without violating the law is crucial to the success of using telemedicine.
The legal priorities in telemedicine include protecting the patients’ privacy, informed consent and confidentiality, and conforming to the standards of care, among others. While there’s a great need for telemedicine because of the current pandemic the world faces today, the government and the healthcare sector are still expected to uphold quality patient care, which includes setting legal priorities and abiding by existing medical laws.