Technological advancements that allow for quicker and more secure electronic communication have encouraged telemedicine. The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) defines telemedicine as “the practice of medicine using electronic communications, information technology or other means between a licensee in one location, and a patient in another location, with or without an intervening healthcare provider.” Telemedicine technologies allow for easier access to health care in rural areas, as well as nearly immediate contact with specialists for individuals involved in an emergency situation. However, widespread usage of telemedicine is still developing and most states have yet to take the appropriate legislative initiative to enact guidelines for state medical boards and health providers to follow when implementing telemedicine systems. As a result, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), acknowledging the benefits that telemedicine offers, decided to step in.
On April 26, FSMB adopted a Model Policy for the Appropriate Use of Telemedicine Technologies in the Practice of Medicine (Model Policy). The Model Policy comes as a result of the collaborative efforts of the FSMB-appointed State Medical Boards’ Appropriate Regulation of Telemedicine (SMART) Workgroup. The SMART Workgroup, made up of state medical board representatives and telemedicine experts, was tasked with creating uniform guidelines for state medical boards and health providers after:
- Conducting a comprehensive literature review of telemedicine services and proposed and/or recommended standards of care;
- Identifying and evaluating existing telemedicine standards of care developed and implemented by state medical boards;
- Revising the FSMB’s 2002 policy.
In the absence of state legislation, the Model Policy offers a uniform approach to guide state medical boards and health providers in several essential areas.
First, the SMART Workgroup emphasized that the physician-patient relationship is integral in maintaining the integrity of medical care. The Model Policy notes that, before giving any medical advice, physicians utilizing telemedicine should first:
- Fully verify and authenticate the location and, to the extent possible, the requesting patient;
- Disclose and validate the provider’s identity and applicable credential(s); and
- Obtain appropriate consents from requesting patients after disclosures regarding the delivery models and treatment methods or limitations, including any special informed consents regarding the use of telemedicine technologies.
In addition, the Model Policy notes that an appropriate physician-patient relationship has not been established when the physician’s identity is unknown to the patient. Furthermore, a patient must not be randomly assigned to a physician, but rather have a choice, whenever appropriate. So long as the standard of care is met, the physician-patient relationship can be established using telemedicine technologies.
Second, in order to avoid legal complications related to licensure issues, the Model Policy mandates that a physician must be licensed by the medical board of the state where the patient is physically located at the time he or she is receiving medical services. The SMART Workgroup also noted that physicians who wish to provide telemedicine services online must be licensed in all jurisdictions where patients receive care. As of the publication of this blog 10 states offer special purpose licenses, which allow for health professionals to have the option of obtaining a limited license for the delivery of specific health services under particular circumstances in addition to holding a full license in the state where they primarily practice. Reciprocity legislation and special purpose licenses could mitigate telemedicine boundaries created by licensure constraints.
Third, with regards to applicable scope of practice, FSMB stressed that treatment and consultation recommendations made using telemedicine technologies must be held to the same scope of practice as those in traditional, in-person settings. Furthermore, under the Model Policy physicians cannot issue prescriptions based solely on a questionnaire. In fact, prior to any treatment, the Model Policy requires that the treating physician performs a documented medical evaluation and collects the patient’s relevant clinical history.
Fourth, the Model Policy states that patients should be provided easy access to follow-up care or information from the physician who conducted the consultation, or the physician’s designee. In addition to follow-up services, physicians utilizing telemedicine technologies are required to provide an emergency plan to patients when there are indications that a referral to an acute care facility or emergency room is necessary. The emergency plan must also detail a formal, written protocol appropriate to the services being rendered.
Lastly, the SMART Workgroup requires that physicians should meet or exceed all applicable federal and state legal requirements of protected health information (PHI) privacy, including compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The Model Policy mandates that sufficient privacy and security measures must be in place and documented to assure confidentiality and integrity of PHI. All transmissions of PHI must be secured with passwords, encrypted electronic prescriptions, or other reliable techniques.
Telemedicine will continue to be integrated into health care services in the coming years. The FSMB Model Policy serves as a helpful guide in the absence of state regulations. However, any provider interested in telemedicine should contact a Wachler & Associates attorney. Wachler & Associates will continue to keep you updated on breaking telemedicine legislation and other health care news. For more information on telemedicine or how to utilize telemedicine technologies in your practice, please contact an experienced health care attorney at 248-544-0888 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.