AMA Adopts Ethical Guidelines For Telemedicine

After two years of debate, the American Medical Association adopted a set of ethical guidelines it hopes physicians and the telemedicine industry will use to ensure safe and effective digital doctor-patient interactions.

The AMA’s annual policy-making House of Delegates Monday overwhelmingly approved adding guidelines on the ethical practice of telemedicine, also known as telehealth, to the national doctor group’s constitution and bylaws. The AMA, which had tabled the guidelines for more physician input at previous meetings, said ethical guidelines were needed now because telemedicine is “reshaping” the way doctors engage with their patients.

“The new AMA ethical guidance notes that while new technologies and new models of care will continue to emerge, physicians' fundamental ethical responsibilities do not change,” Dr. Jack Resneck, an AMA board member and dermatologist from San Rafael, Calif., said during the group’s meeting in Chicago.

Doctors are conducting more communications via patients via telehealth devices including tablets, smartphones and desktop computers.

AMA guidelines say physicians working with telemedicine vendors should, among other things:

  • inform users about the limitations of services provided

  • advise users how to arrange for follow-up care

  • encourage users to inform their primary care doctor when they engage online with a telehealth provider

  • advocate for policies and initiatives to promote access to telehealth/telemedicine services for all patients who could benefit from receiving care electronically

“Physicians who provide clinical services through telemedicine must recognize the limitation of the relevant technologies and take appropriate steps to overcome those limitations,” Dr. Resneck said. “What matters is that physicians have access to the relevant information they need to make well-grounded recommendations for each patient.”

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The AMA’s guidelines come amid an unprecedented period of growth of consultations between doctors and patients via smartphones, tablets and desktop computers. The increase in video consultations is fueled by the addition of health insurance coverage of such visits from Anthem WLP +0%, Aetna AET -0.46%, UnitedHealth Group UNH +0.06% and most Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans.

Before health coverage became common, doctors had difficulty getting reimbursed for consultations. Vendors including American Well, MDLive and Teladoc have been growing rapidly to new health coverage from private insurers as well as employers.

American Well CEO Roy Schoenberg said he welcomed the AMA’s new ethical guidance on telehealth.

“It reflects a responsible embrace of technologies that can make healthcare significantly less painful for many Americans,” Schoenberg said. “The AMA’s resolution adds key guidance for physicians who were on the fence so far. It describes the professional ethics that, if followed, will allow safe healthcare to be extended via technology.”

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