Telemedicine may be here to stay.
Not so much because it’s convenient.
Or even that patients want it.
Its biggest selling point may be that it saves money.
Not only for patients but also for doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies.
“It’s usually cheaper than urgent care or the ER for consumers, as well as payers,” Jonathan Linkous, chief executive officer of the American Telemedicine Association, told Heathline.
Telemedicine has been around for a while.
Its early uses included connecting patients in rural areas with medical practitioners, and allowing radiologists to remotely interpret medical imaging.
It’s only been recently that it has started to become better known.
“Over the last two to three years, it’s really taken off,” said Linkous.
Roughly 15 million people in the United States received healthcare that included telemedicine in 2014. That is expected to grow to an estimated 20 million this year, Linkous said.
Some of the uses are already paid for by health insurance.
These include hospitals using technology to access a neurologist at any time to diagnose the type of stroke an emergency room patient is experiencing.
In fact, about 30 percent of intensive care units (ICUs) remotely access critical care specialists to monitor patients.
Telemedicine has expanded recently to include online medical visits and video technology.
A confluence of things has produced a significant increase in telemedicine.
More homes are equipped with high-speed internet connections and cameras.
Many patients also want the convenience of being able to access medical care remotely, especially for urgent care issues.
And insurers and employers are increasingly willing to pay for this type of care since it can significantly reduce costs.
Linkous noted that sometimes there’s a copay for a telemedicine visit and sometimes it’s completely covered by a patient’s health insurance plan.
The American Telemedicine Association reports that reducing or containing healthcare costs is one of the most important reasons for funding or adopting telehealth technologies.
Telemedicine has been shown to reduce medical costs and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays, according to the association.
It’s also convenient and can provide care more quickly, which can be important especially for people with children, he said.
“You don’t have to get in the car,” he said. “You don’t have to wait in a room full of sick people.”
Insurance picking it up
Telemedicine benefits are quickly becoming part of health insurance coverage.
Employee benefits consulting firm Willis Towers Watson projects that 71 percent of employers will offer it by the end of next year.
With most major private insurers and employers now paying for these types of visits, about 750,000 people will use telemedicine this year for 1.2 million to 1.3 million consultations, Linkous said.
In some cases, health plans are using a telemedicine company’s network of providers. In others, they’re using their own network, but may use the technology that these companies provide.
“Eventually most primary care doctors will be offering it on their own,” said Linkous. “They’ve offered after-hours care forever by telephone.”
American Well offers online physician visits for $49. In comparison, physician visits without insurance can run from $80 to $180, urgent care visits from $70 to $150, and emergency room visits from $500 into the thousands of dollars.
The telemedicine association says that studies have shown that the quality of healthcare services delivered with telemedicine are as good as those provided with in person visits.
In specialties such as mental health and ICU care, outcomes and patient satisfaction are better.
And studies have shown that patients want telemedicine, which can provide services they may not be able to access otherwise.
However, Claire McAndrew, private insurance program director at Families USA, which advocates for improving healthcare access for vulnerable populations, cautioned that more research is needed to better understand how to best deliver quality care with telemedicine.
Where it can be best utilized
Linkous said that some direct-to-consumer areas have been seeing a lot of growth and success in telemedicine.
These include in-home monitoring of congestive heart failure patients, dermatological care for conditions such as rashes, and mental healthcare, particularly in areas where mental health practitioners are in short supply.
He said that some issues, such as care for a recurring urinary tract infection, lend themselves well to telemedicine.
McAndrew also sees benefits to uses of telemedicine in rural, as well as urban, areas lacking adequate access to mental health and other providers, or for consumers with mobility issues.
However, she stressed that it shouldn’t be a replacement for in person visits when people need and want providers in their communities.
“Health insurers still need to be building robust networks,” she said.
On the technology side, Linkous points out that certain areas of medicine are evolving and becoming more automated, like hearing, ear, and vision care, and will accessible to people in their homes.
Devices will also allow for testing for strep throat and ear infections in the home, he said.
And wearable devices and sensors, some of which are already available, will provide information on other metrics, such as heart rate and blood pressure.
“It’s a bit of a threat to traditional doctors,” he said. “It’s not surprising that there’s some opposition from the traditional medical community. Some doctors are concerned about the quality of care.”