The Doctor is (Always) In: The Growth of Telemedicine

 

Hospital visits may conjure up thoughts of white walls, the smell of bleach, and people in scrubs, but those associations might soon be replaced by visions of robots and touchscreens. We’re well into the Digital Age, and the advances of technology already have deep roots in the medical industry. From digital scribes to DaVinci surgeries, new developments in electronics are becoming healthcare providers’ favorite assistants.

While hi-tech gadgets get the most attention, it’s actually telemedicine – the use of technology to give patients remote access to medical care – that’s sweeping hospitals and clinics nationwide. Whether telemedicine (also known as telehealth) means chatting with a nurse on your iPhone or talking to your doctor over Skype, it’s the defining factor of healthcare in the 21st century. Over 70% of healthcare providers report that they engage with patients electronically, and the majority of medical executives are already implementing telemedicine options in their hospitals (1). As more providers adopt telemedicine into their practice, it’s important to stay informed about what this means for the future of healthcare.

Here’s what you need to know:

Don’t fight the future.

Telemedicine might feel like a fad, but it’s already been adopted by over 50% of all US hospitals (2). It doesn’t take much to set up basic telehealth tools, either – a working internet connection and a webcam can be a sufficient start. Or you can hire providers via a telemedicine company; there are already over 200 of them in the US, and their services can reduce the administrative costs you’d expect with new providers.(3)

Follow the money.

Right now, telemedicine is the boomtown of the healthcare industry. It’s estimated that the US market for telemedicine will reach nearly $3 billion by the early 2020s (part of a global market estimated at $36 billion within the next 3 years) (3,4,5). Over 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely last year,” the Wall Street Journal reports, and those numbers continue to grow (6). Telemedicine is being used everywhere: schools allow students to get virtual doctor appointments; companies include telehealth perks in their benefits packages; and doctors can even monitor ICUs remotely from another hospital and alert nurses when a patient is in distress.  

Find a niche.

Some specialties were made for telemedicine, but others take some creativity to implement. For instance, while remotely-operated robotic “surgeons”; are already a reality, they’re not affordable or feasible for most hospitals (yet). Practitioners in psychiatry, pediatrics, and general practice are adapting to telemedicine fastest, because many of their patients don’t require face-to-face, hands-on visits to get a diagnosis. Specialties that are heavy on in-person interaction can benefit from other telehealth tools, like online patient portals and wearable monitors that feed patient data back to the provider, or even chat clients that let doctors consult each other on critical cases.    

Brush up on credentialing.

It may seem easier not having to entertain patients in a traditional office, but telemedicine invites its own set of difficulties. The work it takes to credential a provider (and maintain those credentials) will double for every state where the provider holds a medical license (up to 50), and for every hospital affiliation they require.(7) Many telemedicine providers work across state lines, where licensure requirements frequently differ (although the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact is well underway, and will speed up licensing for telemedicine providers across 19 participating states) (8). Add to this a slew of conflicting regulations for telemedicine malpractice cases, and you’ll quickly find yourself reliant on credentialing software to keep up with the madness.(9)

Say goodbye to provider shortages.

There can never be enough healthcare providers, but certain areas get hit the hardest when there’s a shortage. Rural or hard-to-reach communities constantly face a deficit in qualified physicians, and telemedicine provides an easy solution. Rather than making patients take long car trips or trying to entice providers to move, hospitals can connect them over the internet in a matter of minutes. It’s paying off, too – between 2004 and 2014, rural patients on Medicare drove up telemedicine usage in mental health fields by 45% each year (10).    

Get tech savvy.

Don’t worry – you don’t have to become a software engineer to make this work. But technology can be finicky, and you don’t want to run into trouble on the one day your IT consultant has the flu. Do your research on internet providers, and make sure that your plan can handle the bandwidth drain of multiple video conference calls, a constant online presence, and more. Have a dedicated resource who can train your providers on simple troubleshooting to keep patients happy and connected. And most importantly, get legal advice about your choices before you launch; HIPAA regulations are even stricter when it comes to sharing patient data electronically, and you don’t want something as simple as an unsecured network to bring you down.  

Pick your battles.

For all the hype, telemedicine is still very new. Insurance companies don’t treat telehealth “visits” the same way they do in-person ones, so patients frequently have issues being reimbursed. Luckily, though, telemedicine visits can be significantly cheaper (compare a $45 cost for a video consultation to $100-750 at a hospital or clinic) (6). It’s not hopeless, either – a new bill to expand Medicare coverage of telehealth care was just introduced by senators at the beginning of this month. (11,12) Investing in telehealth will pay out, and it’s worth being at the forefront of this field as it rapidly develops.      

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