How Telehealth Has Changed the Landscape for Medical Staff Services

Director of Healthcare Solutions

Telehealth adoption skyrocketed during the first year of the pandemic, forcing a transformation of healthcare. In addition to changing how patients receive care at healthcare facilities, telehealth also influenced how medical staff services check provider credentials.

More than two years into the pandemic, telehealth hasn’t gone away. A KFF-Epic Research analysis of March through August 2021 found that 8% of all outpatient visits were conducted via telehealth. That’s down from the 13% measured at the height of the pandemic but significant since, prior to COVID-19, telehealth outpatient visits were not a regularly tracked statistic.

“I think telemedicine and remote patient monitoring are going to continue to grow,” says Christina Watson, Physicians Assistant and Provider for Medek Health Systems. “So many patients find it more convenient and more personal than going in for office visits.”

Explore how telehealth has changed the landscape for medical staff services, from transforming the credentialing process to waiving requirements.


Credentialing by Proxy

Telehealth may have let patients instantly visit their healthcare practitioners, but medical staff services were challenged to incorporate those changes into the credentialing process.

The credentialing process requires hospitals and other healthcare facilities to confirm the qualifications of each provider they grant privileges to practice within their organization, including telehealth providers not on site. But the high costs of credentialing remote providers often make it difficult for smaller or more rural healthcare facilities to offer telehealth services to their patients.

To address the inequity of services, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) regulations now allow hospitals to perform what is known as “credentialing by proxy” — relying on credentialing and privileging decisions made by a distant site hospital or telemedicine organization, such as a teleradiology group or ambulatory surgery center.

“I encourage people to take advantage of credentialing by proxy,” says Kathy Matzka, CPMSM, CPCS, and a writer, speaker, and consultant specializing in credentialing and professional staff issues. “Take advantage of the current CMS regulations and approved hospital credentialing processes. There’s no reason to recreate the wheel.”


Waiving CMS Requirements

When COVID-19 was declared a national health emergency in March 2020, CMS waived all medical staff credentialing requirements as part of its response. While most states have rescinded their public emergency status, the federal health emergency may continue into 2023.

Matzka says that when she asks medical staff services professionals at her speaking engagements if any have taken up CMS on their credentialing waiver, they all respond with a resounding “no.”

“It’s due to the liability,” she says. “If they let in someone who isn’t licensed to practice, they’ll still be sued for negligent credentialing regardless of CMS waiving the requirements.”


Recognizing Telehealth as an Existing Privilege

Healthcare providers with existing hospital privileges were often asked to work via telehealth during the beginning days of the pandemic. This transfer to telehealth concerned medical staff professionals who considered telehealth an expansion of privileges.

However, the Joint Commission interceded with new guidance — medical staff services should not consider telehealth a new privilege. Instead, visits via telemedicine are simply a different form of practicing medicine for which providers already have been credentialed.


Adapting to Change

Like the rest of the healthcare industry, the COVID-19 pandemic required medical staff services across the United States to adapt to the adoption of telehealth. Now that the immediate demand for telehealth staff has lessened because of decreased visits, workloads should lighten for medical staff services going forward, even as telehealth becomes a permanent part of the healthcare landscape.