During the current global pandemic, telemedicine has emerged as an effective way for doctors and patients to interact without risk of spreading COVID-19. In the United States, recent legislation which was passed in response to the pandemic has expanded the availability of medical treatment delivered by telemedicine. This legislation has eliminated traditional barriers to telemedicine in significant ways, including:
- Removing the requirement that there be a pre-existing doctor-patient relationship before the provider can provide telemedicine services;
- Eliminating the requirement that telemedicine providers use audio-visual platforms, allowing patients to access medical providers using telephones;
- Relaxing the requirements for the types of technology medical providers can use. Providers are now permitted to communicate with patients using non-HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant technologies such as FaceTime, Facebook video chat, Google Hangouts, or Skype.
What does this mean for seafarers?
During the pandemic, seafarers may encounter difficulties and delays accessing in-person medical care in the US, including refilling prescriptions and obtaining medical supplies, due to restrictions on shore leave and crew changes, quarantine requirements and port closings. Easier access to telemedicine may help alleviate some of these issues. With easier access to telemedicine, seafarers in US ports can now receive medical evaluations, diagnoses and treatment, including prescriptions, by telemedicine consultation. This is particularly helpful when dealing with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, which can be managed with medication and do not necessarily require an in-person consultation. Local medical assistance companies or ship's agents are available to deliver prescriptions and supplies to the seafarer, avoiding unnecessary person-to-person contact.
Is the legislation allowing greater access to telemedicine likely to be made permanent?
Although the changes to telemedicine are temporary, some medical experts in the US have urged that they be made permanent. The chief medical officer in Texas said, the pandemic "has driven us to focus on what's practical, what's efficient, and what works." He noted, "hopefully on the back end of this pandemic, we can keep the things that work and then put safety mechanisms around them as well."