UF Health Jacksonville hospital is getting more than $2 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch a telemedicine project to treat urban patients with HIV.
Telehealth is the practice of treating patients from a distance using technology like computers, tablets and other platforms.
The project will allow patients who are currently seen in person within the UF Health system to connect with a doctor for face-to-face consultations. In rural areas, such as outlying parts of Northeast Florida, patients can sometimes lack access to a specialist. Likewise, low-income patients in urban areas are more likely to rely on public transportation and can’t always make in-person appointments.
In a statement released Thursday, UF Health Jacksonville Dr. Reetu Greewal — who is an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine — intimated the new treatment option can help curb treatment disparities.
“Jacksonville is one of the largest cities in land mass, so at times it can be challenging for some of our patients who use public transportation to get to one of our clinics,” she wrote. “We’re hopeful this can help.”
Patients can still see their specialists in person if they’d prefer, but for routine appointments, UF Health officials say telehealth can save time.
“This is a great addition to another telemedicine program we offer, Visual Visits, which gives all patients in our system the opportunity to talk with physicians anywhere they can use a portable device like their smartphones,” wrote Dr. Nipa Shah and chair of community health and medicine at UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville.
The CDC is funding the project for three years. It will be administered through a partnership between various departments at UF Health and the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minorities Youth Network.
Dr. Greewal told WJCT in an interview Friday that part of the grant money will be spent on setting up a permanent telehealth kiosk at JASMYN’s Riverside hub. The network caters mostly to LGBT youth, many who may be homeless after being rejected by family.
“We really hope that what’s going to happen is that it’s going to increase compliance with HIV care because right now having to go in person every three months can be pretty cumbersome for many patients,” she said.
Greewal said the CDC grant won’t cover a patient’s treatment. Instead, the money will go towards equipment, training and other costs associated with getting the project off the ground. Newly-diagnosed patients won’t qualify, she added. Those hoping to take advantage of UF telehealth treatment should already be in the management stage of the virus, which requires regular checkups and medication.
Although patients lacking insurance won’t be turned away, they’ll need to pay $49 for a virtual appointment, Greewal said. She added that ensuring a current HIV patient’s insurance covers telemedicine can be tricky, though most commercial insurance companies do to a certain extent.
“We are sort of depending on the insurance companies that our patients have… many of the commercial plans are covering telehealth visits,” she said.
There are currently no solid regulations in Florida regarding the practice of distance medicine, but state lawmakers are set to debate which doctors should be allowed to practice it and how insurance companies and Medicaid should cover it.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would direct Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration to cover the practice through the state Medicaid program and nudges the state employee health insurance program to do the same. Florida Medicaid does cover certain telehealth procedures, though that coverage has not been codified.
The proposed law would set standards for physicians, requiring the completion of a special telehealth course. It would also forbid doctors using telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances like opioids or marijuana for things like chronic nonmalignant pain. That’s already prevented by a state administrative rule.Otherwise, the bill generally holds physicians using telemedicine to the same standards as in-person visits.
Meanwhile, the state’s Telehealth Advisory Council is inches away from issuing final recommendations for state lawmakers, which include mandating commercial insurance companies to cover distance medicine.
Participating UF patient outcomes and physician caseloads will be monitored and researched throughout the duration of the program to give UF Health a better idea of how telehealth can impact a patient’s wellbeing and satisfaction. That information will also be shared with the CDC for their own research and studies. Both UF and the CDC are expected to focus on surveying urban patients in the program.
Jacksonville has the ninth-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses according to a study by AIDSVu, which is an Emory University and Gilead Sciences, Inc. project. That same study found Florida has one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the country, and has for at least the last three years.
Greewal expects the HIV telehealth program to launch next summer.