As “retail telehealth”—the use of telehealth approaches in consumer-facing and retail environments—continues to gain traction and retail giants like Amazon and Walmart enter the space, consumers can increasingly access anytime, anywhere care. But with that opportunity comes significant challenges that must be addressed with consumer- and provider-protecting policies, argues Joseph Kvedar, MD, Partners HealthCare Vice President for Connected Health, in a new report.

The report, co-authored by Dr. Kvedar, American Telemedicine Association President Peter Yellowlees, MD, and Keisuke Nakagawa, MD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis Health, was recently published in the journal Health Affairs. It argues that sensitive patient data and provider expertise are vulnerable to the forces of less-regulated commercial programs unless safeguards are put in place while the landscape evolves.

“Current policies are insufficient to address the opportunities and threats created by these new developments,” the authors state. They suggest four avenues to ensure the current health care landscape can absorb retail telehealth without unregulated access that could do harm as it brings wellness to the mass market:

• Net neutrality and telehealth accessibility. Research should inform design and implementation of net neutrality policies that will impact how telecoms charge for accessibility, which will in turn affect providers delivering telehealth to underserved populations or during natural disasters.

• Data privacy and security. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was last updated in 2003—before the entry of new telehealth channels into the market—and should be revisited to account for these technological shifts.

The collision of protected health information and consumer channels. With mobile health devices and smart homes, there are more opportunities for consumer health information to move outside of the traditional health care network—and guidelines should address data-use permission and consent.

• Provider flexibility. As consumers gain access to providers through telehealth, policies should support provider flexibility and practice independence so that solo and small practices can create flexible arrangements and use telehealth to their advantage.

As telehealth’s pace of change accelerates, Kvedar and co-authors argue, policymakers must consider these new channels in the context of health care policy, balancing the doors it opens for patients and providers with protections against misuse.

Read more in mHealth Intelligence and Health Affairs.