Advances in information technology are transforming medical care by changing the way that health is delivered and how people access clinical services. One technology on the forefront of this revolution is telemedicine, defined as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients’ health status. As stated in past HealthFlock posts, examples of telemedicine at work today in Atlanta and elsewhere are prevalent: emergency medical personnel transferring medical information and images from ambulances to hospital emergency rooms, video consultations between a physician specialist and her patients, and healthcare providers using remote monitoring to track changes in important patient vital signs in their homes.
By diminishing the impact of time and distance, telemedicine expands capacity and makes it easier for patients to be seen and treated. It can decrease the costs of care delivery and support greater patient self-management. Additionally, it has been shown to improve the quality of care and patient outcomes.
Even with such a bright future though, it still faces a number of barriers to realize its full potential. From a recent survey of primary care physicians in 2011 by UnitedHealth Group/Harris, the top reasons for not using telemedicine included the cost of the equipment, lack of reimbursement, administrative hassle, and lack of interest. This should give us pause on what should be done to make sure the promising opportunity of telemedicine is not derailed.
It is incumbent of policymakers, health plans and payors, and healthcare providers to take more aggressive actions as it relates to telemedicine to realize widespread adoption in the marketplace. In particular, reimbursement for telemedicine must be improved in public programs and aligned with best practices from private payors. To this end, I would argue that all federal health benefit plans should uniformly cover health services provided via telehealth. Second, licensing requirements prevent practitioners in many cases from practicing across state lines, even if telemedicine is not bound by such restrictions. Thus, efforts should be made to enable interstate licensure and credentialing for telemedicine health professionals and therefore broaden the deployment of telemedicine across Georgia and the country.
Finally, a shift in the practice of medicine must occur due to the use of technology. Many physicians remain uncomfortable with technology, and education is needed to ease the transition for many providers. Demonstrations of the technology tailored to physicians are a first step. Furthermore, health plans, employers, and payors should work with providers in their networks to educate them about telemedicine’s ability to improve the health of their patients and encourage its regular use in daily life.
These proposals are not meant to argue that great work isn’t being done today to move the telemedicine needle for mass adoption. In fact, Georgia is well-positioned to be a national leader in telehealth. Through organizations like the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth, a leading agency in Georgia focusing on increasing access to healthcare through innovative use of technology, real efforts are being made to build telehealth connections between providers and expand broadband connectivity.
While telemedicine is only in its infancy today, with a little hope and a good push, we should come to expect great things from technology for how care will be delivered and patients communicate with the health community.