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Will telehealth impact diabetes care for Medicare patients?

Released: Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How do you care for a chronic disease when visiting a doctor in person could be risky or not an option at all due to the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s a concern for many people living with diabetes now.

Researchers at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI), Ochsner Health System and Pennington Biomedical Research Center are studying how telehealth practices are being adopted and implemented during the pandemic for patients with diabetes on Medicare.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) awarded the team $421,629 as an enhancement to an existing grant awarded in 2016. That grant was designed as a series of natural experiments to evaluate targeted health policies to prevent diabetes and its complications. 

Louisiana has among the highest prevalence of diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions in the U.S. These same conditions increase patients’ risk for severe COVID-19 illness and death.

In early March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) broadened access to telehealth services during the pandemic. As a result, Medicare beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to visit a healthcare facility.

The research team will use their existing relationships, through the Research Action for Health Network (REACHnet), to examine availability and scope of telehealth services offered by Louisiana providers. The team will also look at how patients with diabetes used the services.

Researchers will study whether telehealth patients experienced better diabetes management than peers who are not offered telehealth services or who do not have the means to participate.

“This enhancement will contribute timely information to better understand health systems’ responsiveness and challenges in terms of telehealth delivery for high risk populations including patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Lizheng Shi, endowed Regents Professor and interim chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Tulane. “We will also focus our analyses on health disparities and health literacy in the access to telehealth.”

“Collaborations like this are so important in advancing health care for our state’s residents. This study gives us a first-hand look at the importance of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a window into the future use of this technology in a post-COVID world,” said Pennington Biomedical Executive Director John Kirwan, PhD. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes and adaptation within the healthcare landscape,” said Dr. Beth Nauman, managing director of LPHI and co-principal investigator of the study. “This study will generate evidence to inform better strategies for patient-centered care and enhanced support services.”

Pennington Biomedical’s Gang Hu, MD, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, Chronic Disease Epidemiology Laboratory, and Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, Associate Executive Director for Population and Public Health Sciences, are co-investigators on the study. They will assess whether COVID-19 diagnoses and outcomes are related to better diabetes management.

The study was initially funded in June and researchers plan to perform an interim analysis on study outcomes around November of this year, with a final study report to be released in the summer of 2021.

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About LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center

LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. The center conducts basic, clinical and population research, and is affiliated with Louisiana State University. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes over 450 employees within a network of 40 clinics and research laboratories, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physician/scientists are supported by research trainees, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians and other support personnel. Pennington Biomedical is located in state-of-the-art research facilities on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.