The South Central Telehealth Resource Center has received over $800,000 in federal funding to expand its efforts in telehealth education.
The center, housed at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, but a part of the National Consortium of Telehealth Resource Centers, received $825,000 from the Health Resources and Services Administration as a part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relieve and Economic Security or CARES Act.
The center provides educational, technical and outreach assistance to clinics or practices that already provide or are wishing to start their own telehealth services. It aids establishments not only in Arkansas, but also in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Dr. Hari Eswaran, the center's director, says the coronavirus pandemic caused an increase in demand for assistance in establishing telemedicine services. This federal funding, he says, will help with that.
"We will continue to do what we’re doing, but with the emphasis on responding to the COVID changes and [the] boom in telemedicine. And people are normally confused because there are so many vendors out there and we try to give them a neutral picture of what they need to know," Eswaran said.
According to Eswaran, the center has until March to spend the additional federal funding and there are some restrictions on what they can spend it on. Eswaran says the money will go towards education outreach on various aspects of telehealth. On example is the expansion of its existing webinars for interested clinics and practices.
"It used to be once a month but now we’re doing every week, altering between 'Telehealth 101,' which is more basic, to a more, we call it 'Telehealth Roundup' where we’re bringing people with expertise on billing, policy, technical support," Eswaran said. "And we’re bringing both national speakers and regional speakers because each state has its own policies in terms of reimbursement and things like that."
Another resource the center is providing, Eswaran said, is webinars on the ethics of telehealth, with rules concerning the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA.
"Although some of it is relaxed right now, but soon when that is over, they have to be more careful about what they’re doing so mostly we’re trying to do as much education and training around how to use telehealth," Eswaran said.
Though laws concerning telehealth are currently less strict due to an executive order signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Eswaran does expect them to tighten up again once the coronavirus outbreak is more under control.
Dr. Curtis Lowery is the director of the UAMS Institute for Digital Health and Innovation as well as a professor for the UAMS Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He says due to the coronavirus pandemic, more clinics and practices are becoming interested in establishing telehealth services, and the telehealth resource center provides unbiased information to aid them.
"By adding money to these programs, it allows us to expand what we’re doing, spend more money on education, developing resources, answering phones and really becoming more of a resources center than even before," Lowery said.
Lowery says he thinks one lasting positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic will be the continued investment in telehealth.
"The virus is a horrible, terrible thing, but it did jumpstart the movement towards digital health. And from that point of view, we jumped probably five years into the future after this in terms of the uptake and use of these resources," Lowery said.