By definition, telemedicine is the practice of delivering medical care remotely using communications technology. Although it sounds like a modern advent, the foundation of this practice has been around since the invention of the telephone when doctors used to call their patients directly. By using more sophisticated technologies like videoconferencing, telemedicine will only continue to get more sophisticated as technology grows.
In this post, we look at the current state of telemedicine, and discuss how technology can benefit everyone – from the largest healthcare networks to the smallest doctors’ offices.
The Current State of Telemedicine
Three things are causing telemedicine to increase in popularity: faster Internet connections, the near universal adoption of smartphones and tablets as personal devices, and the emergence of commercial software platforms that support the real-time scheduling and billing of videoconferences between doctors and patients.
74% of patients stated that they would use a telemedicine service if available. This means the demand is there. Now it’s up to doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to work on the supply side. According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians, 78% believed the use of telemedicine improved both access to and quality of healthcare. Additionally, 68% said that continuity of care was improved by telemedicine. But only 15% of doctors had used telemedicine technology. So now it’s up to doctors’ offices and hospitals to close the gap between supply and demand for telemedicine services.
The Benefits of Telemedicine
There are many benefits to telemedicine, for both patients and doctors:
- Care delivered in a timelier manner: Rather than waiting for an appointment with their doctor, patients can get care immediately – usually within two minutes of clicking on a link.
- Reduced costs: The cost to the patient of a routine doctor’s visit is currently approximately $100, compared to $45 for a virtual visit. And the cost differential between a virtual visit and a trip to the emergency room (minimum cost $750—and probably much more) is significantly higher. Of course, there will always be situations when people will need to go to a physical emergency room. But telemedicine can work to “triage” those cases that can either be solved over a videoconference, or can wait for a regular doctor’s appointment. For doctors, costs are lower too. The office overhead for virtual practices – rent, salaries, utilities, and more – is very low compared to supporting a brick-and-mortar business. True, today telemedicine is mostly supplementing existing physical practices, but there are some doctors and clinics establishing 100% virtual practices. This is going to be a major trend in the future given the projected shortage of primary care physicians in coming decades – especially for rural populations that live far from established medical practices.
- Greater convenience: Patients don’t need to take off work or leave their household duties to see a doctor, and doctors can work from anywhere, at any time convenient to them. Add in doctors sending files, records or even MRIs and X-rays (which typically had to be sent in the mail) and you can see how the convenience benefits all concerned.
- Better care: It is even arguable that doctors can provide holistically better care through telemedicine. Minor matters can be resolved via virtual visits, giving doctors more time to focus on urgent issues that require an in-person visit. Follow-up care after an operation or procedure can be easily accomplished with telemedicine, promoting better adherence to doctors’ orders.
- Improved doctor-to-doctor consultations: Doctors can easily communicate with other healthcare professionals, which can help with patient referrals, continuing education and advanced consultations.
- The healthcare digital ecosystem: Platforms can link the entire healthcare ecosystem—from patients to providers to health plans. Healthcare IT platforms capture data from disparate sources (e.g., wearables, phones, glucometers), and connect it to provide patients and caregivers a holistic and real-time view of your health. With cloud partners, it will be able to rapidly scale up to hundreds of millions of patients, devices, and sensors – using endless flows of data to tackle the biggest challenges facing the industry, from the hospital to the home.
What Doctors Need to Make Telemedicine Work
Doctors need to deploy technology that has the following functionality:
- Videoconferencing capabilities: Patients feel more comfortable if they can see as well as hear their caregivers.
- Ability to securely share and store sensitive health data: Any capturing, storing, or communicating of healthcare data has to follow security requirements set out by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). And electronic health records (EHRs) must follow government standards and be used appropriately to reap the financial incentives for investing in technology improvements as set out by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH)
- A way to schedule and bill for virtual appointments: The manual, human-based ways that most of us make doctor appointments and pay our bills, although gradually becoming automated, must be accomplished online by patients. Given that insurance coverage of virtual care is still an act in progress, this can be quite complex.
- An ultra-reliable and fast network: Your network must have high bandwidth, be extremely reliable, and have sufficient upload and download speeds for file sharing, cloud storage, and videoconferencing.
Happily, a number of companies have come out with software platforms and supporting services that encompass all this functionality. These platforms are growing in sophistication and decreasing in cost from month to month, so fast is this technology area advancing.
On the Edge of Breakthrough
One-fifth of Americans live in geographies where shortages of physicians and health care specialists exist. More to the point, the United States ranks the lowest among eleven industrialized countries on measures of health system costs, efficiency, access to care, and health outcomes. Telemedicine can help with all these. And in the process, both doctors and patients will see lower costs and better quality of care.