How Small Practices Can Get Involved in Telemedicine

February 27, 2015
Zach Watson

Thanks to its low barrier of entry and popularity with patients, telemedicine is quickly becoming commonplace for independent practices and hospitals alike.

Of all the new medical software and healthcare technology, telemedicine may be the tool that offers the most immediate value to physicians. Ranging from remote monitoring devices to patient visits over Internet video, this technology has the potential to improve affordability and access where it matters most: at the point of care.

And thanks to its low barrier of entry and popularity with patients, telemedicine is quickly becoming commonplace for independent practices and hospitals alike.

Increasing Popularity

Though the capabilities for telemedicine have existed for several decades, it’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that technology has become ubiquitous enough to gain widespread acceptance.

Recent estimates of its use are encouraging: over half of all US hospitals use telemedicine in some form according to the American Telemedicine Association. Physicians are starting to get reimbursed for these services as well. Twenty states require private insurers to reimburse for telemedicine services, and over 40 states have Medicaid policies that cover remote medical care.

The prominence of telemedicine can be linked to consumer (or in this context patient) demand. The modern consumer expects at least some degree of online, on-demand services, and the growing availability of online appointment scheduling with physicians has led many patients to take the next step and seek full-fledged online interactions.

These interactions mirror the demand for concierge medicine. But instead of patients having to pay a membership fee for on-demand access to in-person physicians, telemedicine supplies a more affordable method for receiving healthcare services.

What was once a government-subsidized tactic for delivering healthcare to underserved rural regions of the country is becoming a standard means of communication between patients and physicians - particularly through the use of video conferencing and telephone consultations.

Promising Results

Telemedicine is more than a victory for convenience. In 2014, RAND Corporation studied the effectiveness of telemedicine by observing medical services consumption by patients who used Teledoc, a large telemedicine provider, versus patients who visited a physician’s office or emergency room department.

RAND’s study demonstrated that patients who consulted with a physician through streaming video or over the phone booked follow-up appointments 6 percent of the time, while patients who visited an office did so 13 percent. Emergency room patients did so 20 percent of the time.

These findings highlight how telemedicine services can help reduce the unnecessary consumption of medical resources, and consequently, lower medical costs as a whole.

Consider applying these results to patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, or hypertension. Patients with these conditions use a high amount of medical services, but telemedicine offers them a way to inexpensively receive such attention. Even limiting follow-up appointments to a telemedicine context could yield significant cost savings.

An Opportunity for Small Practices

Telemedicine has great potential for all types of providers. Implementing more complex technology such as remote monitoring may not be easy for small practices, but video conferencing and phone services present attainable business opportunities.

Even if insurance plans don’t reimburse in your state, patients will usually pay an out-of-pocket fee for the convenience. Plus, setting up a telemedicine system is relatively simple. A web camera, HIPAA secure network portal, and software that connects EHRs cover most of what’s needed.

Given that the Affordable Care Act is expected to increase the number of patients seen by primary-care physicians, implementing telemedicine services can expand the reach - and conserve the time - of independent PCPs.

You can also join a telemedicine network like Teladoc and MDLive, if the demand isn’t there in your patient population. Licensing requirements are a concern if you receive calls from patients out of state, but the process isn’t so arduous that it diminishes the benefits of receiving patient calls on your schedule.

Telemedicine is growing rapidly, and will soon be available to the majority of patients in the US. In contrast to other healthcare initiatives and technologies that always seem to encounter organizational barriers or legal obstructions, telemedicine is poised to thrive due to its simplicity and obvious value.
 

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