State Policy Network
Telehealth: Explained
What is telehealth, how does it work, and which laws regulate it?

Telehealth, also called telemedicine, has gained wide popularity over the past year.

As the coronavirus made it more difficult and even risky to visit medical professionals in-person, telemedicine offered an effective way for patients to visit with their doctors while maintaining social distancing. Millions of Americans used this innovative and convenient technology in 2020. Maybe you’re one of them. But what exactly is telehealth, how does it work, and which laws regulate it?

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is a process where doctors provide healthcare to patients virtually—through the phone or through video.

However, the term “telehealth” covers so much more—any time a specialist from another state is called for a consultation, that’s telehealth. Sending X-rays, remote patient monitoring (like what many now do with their smart watches), and even the transmission of medical records from one doctor to another are all part of the umbrella term of “telehealth.”

When did telehealth start?

From its sudden popularity, it may seem like telehealth is a new technology. It’s not! In fact, the first widely reported use of interactive video communications for healthcare was in 1959—when doctors at the University of Nebraska sent neurological scans to medical students across campus. In the late 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started to use telemedicine to monitor astronauts’ health while they were in space.

What are the benefits of telehealth?

What laws regulate telehealth?

States are primarily responsible for crafting laws that regulate telehealth, and each state has different rules and regulations.

Common telehealth regulations include:

Reasons for excessive telehealth regulations range from well-intentioned concern about patient health and quality of care to the desire of private interests to maintain monopolies and prevent competition.

What matters most is what can be done to remove unnecessary regulations to ensure all Americans have access to quality healthcare through telemedicine.

What have states done to expand telehealth during the coronavirus?

Since the pandemic began, 36 states have enacted legislation to permanently or temporarily suspend telehealth laws. As millions of Americans experienced the benefits of this innovative technology during the coronavirus, many states are working to make temporary deregulations permanent.

Here are just a few of the many examples of state policy organizations working to make telehealth reforms permanent:

How can states continue to expand access to telehealth?

States should first review existing telehealth regulations and consider making reforms that improve patients’ access to this beneficial technology.

Telehealth reforms include the following: 

Other steps states can take:

April’s Story: How telehealth saved lives during the pandemic

For many patients with life-threatening conditions, their chance of survival is only as good as the doctor who is treating them. For the millions of Americans who do not live in a major city, access to specialists can be limited. April Hynes’s incredible story shows how telehealth is saving lives by making it possible for patients to work with specialists outside their immediate geographic area.

April is a mother of three from southeastern Pennsylvania who was already suffering from stage-four cancer when the pandemic struck. She had been traveling to see a physician in a nearby state, who had expertise treating her illness. But when Pennsylvania’s governor banned cross-state telemedicine, April could no longer work with the doctor she trusted and needed.

Fortunately, state-based think tanks across the country were already aware of these bans on cross-state telehealth and were already working to remove them. While continuing a push for broader healthcare reforms that would benefit all residents of the state, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation realized that April needed help now, not when the legislature got around to it. So, while continuing to encourage the state legislature to enact general telehealth reforms, they helped April get in touch with her state representative.

Thanks to their efforts, April was able to obtain a special telehealth exception because of her life-threatening illness

Additional Reading

Licensing Recognition for Telehealth Providers in Alaska
Alaska Policy Forum

Minnesota Seeks to Allow out of state Physicians to Provide Telehealth Services
Center of the American Experiment

Nebraska Legislature to Debate Expanded Telehealth Access
Platte Institute

Ohio can Improve Access to Healthcare Through Telehealth
The Buckeye Institute

Solutions for States: Healthcare Reforms
State Policy Network

Certificate of Need Repeal Would Benefit Alaskans
Alaska Public Policy Foundation

West Virginia Should Eliminate CON Laws
Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy

Barrier to Entry. Barrier to Healthcare.
Empower Mississippi

“We Are in the Community Treating the People Who Live Here”
Empower Mississippi

North Carolinians Deserve Better Healthcare (Video)
John Locke Foundation

Study: Massachusetts Should Embrace Direct Healthcare Options  
Pioneer Institute

Patient-centered Model Outshines Insurance-centered Healthcare during Pandemic
Pioneer Institute

Addressing Cost Drivers in U.S. Healthcare
Texas Public Policy Foundation

Categories: Policy Issues
Policy Issues: Healthcare
Organization: State Policy Network