The New House Call: Telemedicine Services
As the internet has evolved rapidly in the past two decades, it’s relationship with the medical field and medical practices has evolved, too. Video calling and video conferencing have transformed how people access medical care.
Patients can now consult a physician from the convenience and privacy of their home via their laptop, mobile phone or tablet computer. Soon, this type of service will be considered a normal expectation and not a premium offering to a select few patients. Here’s an overview of what telemedicine is and why your practice needs to start offering telemedicine services to your clients.
The history of telemedicine
The medical applications of communications technology were not seriously explored before the mid-20th century, so telemedicine didn’t begin in earnest until much closer to the 21st century. Before that time, radios were used to transmit vital statistics and cardiac rhythms from ambulances on their way to emergency rooms. From that innovation, scientists and government agencies began to invest even more in communications technology in the 1970s and 1980s.
The early 1980s brought the development of satellite video broadcasts to and from remote areas, allowing patients to consult with a doctor without having to travel long distances. U.S. Astronauts also began to receive medical consultations via remote video broadcast, too. However, physicians and hospitals were limited at the time by the cost of equipment and limitations of technology to transmit video over distance effectively. Telemedicine in the form we know it now didn’t truly begin until the early 21st century as the internet and broadband communications began to expand rapidly. Today, the technology used for telemedicine is commonplace, and nearly any medical facility or practice can provide telemedicine to their patients.
The exponential growth of telemedicine
As the internet has evolved, telemedicine has continued to grow right along with it. The tools and equipment needed for useful telemedicine continue to become less expensive, and companies like Skype and Facebook have brought video conferencing into the mainstream for all patients. Combined with mobile apps for patients to access lab results and visit records, doctor’s office visits can be kept to a minimum while they still receive regular care.
Furthermore, patients are using self-monitoring health accessories like heart rate monitors, blood pressure monitors, pedometers and continuous glucose monitors for helping manage diabetes care. Telemedicine is an expanding market, and the demand for treatment and consultation via telemedicine isn’t likely to go away any time soon.
How does telemedicine work
The telemedicine process is simple: the provider and patient connect via a video chat app (often one that’s freely available) to consult about a patient’s health concern. If the doctor believes a video chat exam is insufficient, or the physician thinks the patient needs medical testing, they will request the patient to come in for a visit.
If the complaint and diagnosis can be resolved via video conference, then the patient doesn’t have to risk spreading their illness or contracting a different one when visiting the office. There are more complex forms of telemedicine, but exams by video conferences are the most common. Other services and procedures by certain specialists require more advanced equipment. Still, many can offer services remotely that would previously have been impossible without extensive travel for either the patient or the doctor.
Advantages of telemedicine
There are many advantages to offering telemedicine through your medical practice, but here are just a few of the more meaningful and practical benefits:
Telemedicine is more convenient and accessible for patients. They don’t have to come into the office and be around other potentially ill people, and they don’t risk spreading illness to others.
Patients in the U.S. spend over $2.9 trillion on healthcare annually. $200 billion of that amount is considered avoidable or unnecessary. Telemedicine services can significantly reduce that waste by reducing medication non-adherence visits, E.R. visits, and unnecessary doctor’s office visits.
Patients can consult with specialists anywhere in the world. General practitioners can even consult in a conference with the specialist and the patient.
Doctors can engage with their patients more frequently and respond to questions or concerns without the patient having to book an appointment and wait to be seen. This stronger doctor-patient relationship helps patients feel empowered in their own medical care and more likely to follow medical directives given by the physician.
Medical facilities and practices can provide superior patient care with follow up consults at home after office appointments or procedures. Providers can also access internet-connected patient monitoring systems to ensure treatments are effective.
Disadvantages of telemedicine
There are some caveats to be considered before adopting telemedicine as well. Here are a few of the more practical concerns:
Providers to need technical training and a thorough understanding of their equipment before offering telemedicine services.
Certain telemedicine models may cause breaks in the continuity of care. If a patient seeks treatment from a telemedicine provider as opposed to their own general practitioner or specialist, they will be randomly assigned the first available physician. This means they have no medical history to work with, no rapport with the patient, and no pre-existing relationship for helping the patient communicate their concerns.
Some argue telemedicine interactions are too impersonal and degrade doctor-patient relationships. These same critics also state that direct physical exams are frequently necessary to create a confirmed diagnosis anyway. This could potentially lead to misdiagnosis or doctors overlooking patient symptoms that are invisible to a visual examination.
Many health insurance providers bill and reimburse patients in the same way that they would for an in-person office visit. Additionally, telemedicine providers often add on a convenience fee for telemedicine consultations, increasing the patient’s cost of a visit anywhere from $35-$125.
Government and medical board regulation of telemedicine
The American Medical Association (AMA) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) continue to develop and improve current guidelines for telemedicine practice, and state legislatures are introducing new laws explicitly regulating the practice of telemedicine.
With few exceptions, telemedicine regulations follow the reimbursement rules followed by federal programs like Medicaid and private payer insurance companies. States are currently working to ratify their own regulations individually, but most are not expected to deviate significantly from existing rules and guidelines.
There has also been legislation in recent years to allow for cross-state licensing for telemedicine providers, online prescribing and parity laws requiring insurance providers to reimburse claimants for telemedicine consultations.
Why more providers are offering telemedicine
It all comes down to the facts: telemedicine is an integral part of the future of medical care, and providers who do not provide it will quickly find themselves left behind for practices and facilities that offer more flexible options for patient care.
Doctors offering telemedicine services can remotely follow-up with patients regarding treatment after prescribing new medication or providing in-office treatment of an illness. A telemedicine follow-up visit is an excellent means of ensuring patients are receiving the care they need to effectively treat their illness without requiring them to make another trip to the office or facility.
Offering telemedicine services improves doctor-patient relationships, provides a superior level of care post-treatment and empowers patients to take charge of their own health. Telemedicine also reduces wasteful and unnecessary medical spending, a major contributing factor to the skyrocketing cost of healthcare in the United States.
Finally, virtual consultations with doctors and specialists allow patients to access care from physicians to whom they would not ordinarily have access. For some, having a choice in provider regardless of where they are can be lifesaving, especially if they suffer from a rare condition that prevents travel. The bottom line, telemedicine creates better relationships, offers more treatment options, and improves the quality of patient care.
The bottom line
If you’re presently considering whether your practice or facility should invest in telemedicine services, the time for thinking and debating is over. Your practice needs to start enacting a plan to offer telemedicine to your clients as soon as possible. There are practical concerns to account for before you start adding a banner to your website and posting on social media, but failing to offer telemedicine shortly is going to be considered a deal-breaker for patients seeking regular medical care.
If you aren’t familiar with telemedicine, or still have unanswered questions, take the time to read up on the topic in depth. A well-researched plan of action will always be far easier and far more effective than looking at prepackaged options and choosing the one that seems best. Develop a list of specific pros and cons for your practice or facility, and what your liability and other legal obligations will be under your state’s current regulations. Don’t deliberate for too long, though: offering telemedicine services will only improve your patients’ quality of care. Due diligence is essential, it is an opportunity no medical practice can afford to pass by.