On June 13, 2016, the American Medical Association (AMA) approved new ethical guidelines pertaining to the appropriate use of audio-video technologies to connect with and treat patients remotely. Through these guidelines, the AMA advocates for greater use of telemedicine by physicians while concomitantly encouraging such providers to inform patients regarding the limitations of any technology, including explaining the capabilities and limitations of such services and documenting the same. Further, the new AMA guidance emphasizes the need for appropriate protocols to prevent unauthorized access and to protect the security and integrity of patient information obtained through telemedicine or disseminated to subsequent health care providers following a telemedicine encounter.
- The new ethical guidelines will be codified in Opinion E-5.025, “Physician Advisory or Referral Services by Telecommunication,” and Opinion E-5.027, “Use of Health-Related Online Sites.” Through these guidelines, physicians who provide telemedicine services to patients remotely should:
- Inform prospective patients about the limitations of the telemedicine relationship and services.
- Advise prospective patients regarding the potential need for follow-up care as indicated.
- Encourage patients who have existing primary care providers to inform such physicians about the patient’s receipt of telemedicine consultations and services, even if subsequent in-person care is not immediately needed.
- Be proficient in the use of relevant technologies.
- Recognize the limitations of such technologies and take appropriately steps to overcome or address any such limitations.
- Prudently perform appropriate diagnostic evaluations or prescribe medications by:
- Establishing the patient’s identity;
- Confirming that the telemedicine services are appropriate for that patient’s individual situation and medical needs;
- Evaluating the indication, appropriateness and safety of any prescriptive medication in accordance with best practices and state prescriptive formularies; and
- Sufficiently documenting the clinical evaluation and prescription and a medical record.
- Obtain an appropriately documented informed consent regarding the distinctive features of telemedicine in addition to information regarding the specific medical issues and treatment options.
- Take appropriate steps to preserve continuity of care, including giving consideration to the preservation of information and accessibility of such information for subsequent providers.
In addition to disseminating the above guidelines – violation of which could expose a physician to professional licensure sanction by state licensing boards – the AMA is encouraging physicians to collectively advocate for the access of telehealth and telemedicine services for all patients who could benefit from receiving care electronically. The AMA is similarly advocating for professional organizations and institutions to monitor telehealth and telemedicine developments to identify and proactively address both positive and negative outcomes to bring about further improvement in such technologies.
In light of the AMA’s advocacy of telehealth and telemedicine, such support could lead to relaxed restrictions on physician’s use of such technology to treat patients remotely and encourage greater levels of reimbursement by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers for such treatment. Nonetheless, physicians should recognize that their fundamental duties to ensure patient safety and quality of care are not lessened when providing services via telehealth and telemedicine. Moreover, physicians should also be cognizant that the AMA guidelines do not supersede or displace state laws pertaining to telehealth and telemedicine; rather, the guidelines complement such regulations.