• June 29, 2016

The Digital Dr. Is In: Why Telehealth Could Catch On

Video healthcare can save time, money, and lives.

If an apple can keep the doctor away, maybe apps can bring the doctor to you.

Video consultations between patient and healthcare providers can expand access to care, improve quality of care, foster higher employee productivity, reduce costs, and save time for patients. Yet, adoption rates for these patient-doctor video consultations, also known as telehealth, remain low.

Concerns Remain

Technology is not holding telehealth back. Consumers have had access to computing devices equipped with cameras and high-speed internet connectivity for several years. Telehealth hasn’t yet been mainstreamed due to concern by regulators and some insurers that it will become an add-on to existing services and the fact that regulators haven’t updated rules to accommodate it. According to the medical industry publication Modern Healthcare, the fear is that rather than replacing office visits, a Skype chat could become an additional cost before or after in-person consultations.

Many U.S. physicians also remain cautious about endorsing telehealth due to concerns over whether remote exams can be as effective as in-person visits. The Texas Medical Board has tried to stop Teladoc, a third-party channel that facilitates telehealth, from operating in the state, fearing reduced quality of care compared to in-person visits, according to a December 2015 Reuters report.

Benefits Abound

Telehealth advocates counter objections by pointing out the promise of significant savings and improved care. As the Modern Healthcare article points out: “A $50 telehealth visit to diagnose an ear infection is much cheaper than a $600 trip to an emergency department.”

Mercy Virtual, which describes itself as the “world’s first telehealth facility,” affiliated with St. Louis-based Mercy health system, says its services are saving money and lives. Mercy Virtual allows for doctors to monitor patients remotely via electronic connections to medical devices while patients are at home or in a Mercy hospital. The program, Mercy Virtual says, saves $35 million a year, has cut the length of stay at Mercy hospitals by up to 40 percent, and saves an estimated 1,000 lives annually, according to the Reuters report. Tweet this!

As such results get reported, 2016 could be the year telemedicine advances past the “prove-it-to-me” stage. Additionally, Medicare, the largest healthcare insurer, may be close to loosening its strict rules on telehealth. Currently, the government healthcare provider for seniors restricts telehealth payment to only rural subscribers.

President Obama’s most recent budget proposal enables expansion of Medicare Advantage organizations to deliver telehealth services more broadly. What’s more, the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2015, recently re-introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives, would remove geographic barriers.

Employers, who contract with private insurers, seem to be embracing telehealth. According to the National Business Group on Health, 74 percent of large employers are expected to offer telemedicine in 2016 (tweet this!), compared to 48 percent in 2015, and only 28 percent in 2014.

Accelerating Adoption

With enterprises like Mercy Virtual establishing best practices for telehealth and demonstrating success, we can expect adoption of telehealth to accelerate over the next few years. In addition to the clinical advantages, the promise of higher healthcare employee productivity will drive the trend. Add to that higher efficiency in the workplace due to saving many workers time traveling to a doctor’s office and sitting in waiting rooms, and the economic benefits are multiplied. Telehealth should be a winner.

Like this story? Learn more about the impact of going mobile.