In an urgent response to the coronavirus threat, the state medical board voted Monday to let doctors treat more patients online, made it easier for them to practice at multiple hospitals, and vowed to speed up the licensing of medical school graduates.
The board voted 4-0 to approve the three measures in an emergency meeting held via conference call. The provisions are intended to boost the number of doctors available to treat patients for the coronavirus and other diseases, and to curb exposure of patients and health care workers to the virus.
“Things are changing hour to hour in this pandemic,” said Dr. Candace Lapidus Sloane, a pediatric dermatologist and chair of the medical board. “We are facing something I’ve never seen before.”
Governor Charlie Baker had announced Sunday that medical insurers in Massachusetts must cover telehealth services, including phone- and video-based appointments.
The new rule approved by the board makes it explicit that a doctor can treat a patient whom he or she has never seen in person as long as the physician considers it best for the patient during the health crisis.
Sloane said the measure was prompted in part by four phone calls she received over the weekend from doctors quarantining themselves because they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. The doctors felt fine, she said, and wanted to treat patients online or on the phone.
Obviously, she said, some medical problems can’t be treated by a doctor using Skype or a phone.
“If you have a lump that needs to be examined, that can’t be done remotely,” she said in an interview after the vote.
The board also approved a measure that allows a physician credentialed to work at a particular hospital to practice medicine at any licensed hospital in the state without any additional credentialing.
Board members said this would help address a potential shortage if physicians are sickened by the coronavirus or need to be quarantined because of possible exposure.
Lisa O’Connor, a registered nurse who serves as the public member on the board, recommended passing the measure because the state was “only at the beginning of this epidemic.”
The board also passed a provision to speed up the licensing of medical school graduates in case health care facilities need more doctors right away.
Currently, it takes the board about 60 days to process an application for a license, assuming there are no problems, according to George Zachos, the agency’s executive director. Under the emergency provision, the board will seek to grant the license in a few days.
“This is the time for us to all pull together, and the medical community knows how to do that really well,” Sloane said.
The Massachusetts medical board regulates about 42,000 licensed physicians.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org