Telemedicine is the delivery of healthcare services through two-way video, email and smartphones, among other forms of telecommunications technology, according to the American Telemedicine Association. Developed over 40 years ago, telemedicine is becoming a solution to ease the healthcare shortage. The terms telemedicine and telehealth are sometimes a source of confusion because at times they are used synonymously and at other times considered to be have separate definitions. The ATA considers these words to be interchangeable.
This method of care is particularly useful when implemented in rural areas, where the shortage of hospital staff is heightened, placing more pressure on the respective physicians, nurses and healthcare staff.
Addressing medical staffing in rural regions
Nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, though only 11 percent of physicians practice in rural locations. This results in roughly 65 percent of the primary care health professional shortage areas to be classified as rural, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.
“While the long-term solution to the physician shortage may involve making changes in our system of medical education, telemedicine has the promise to increase our provider capacity in the relatively immediate future,” Adam C. Powell, president of Payer+Provider Syndicate, a healthcare consulting company, said in an interview with Becker’s Hospital Review.
“Only 11% of physicians practice in rural locations.”
The implementation of telemedicine provides primary care and specialist referral services, remote patient monitoring, medical education, and consumer medical and health information. These services, in turn, serve essential functions that tackle healthcare needs. Here area few ways telemedicine eases the healthcare shortage:
The technologies used to deliver telemedicine services increase service to millions of new patients, according to the ATA. This concurrently serves as a way to connect patients with international physicians who would otherwise be inaccessible.
“A number of specialties, including radiology and pathology, are amendable to international telemedicine,” Powell said.
Telemedicine is proven to reduce the cost of healthcare, which is a hardship of many Americans. Although nearly 90 percent of Americans have health insurance, high deductibles, copays and lack of primary care physicians still prove to be problematic, according to Gallup and Healthways. Sixty-four million Americans, or 35 percent, currently struggle with medical-related debt, even though 70 percent of those struggling have insurance, according to a 2014 survey by the Commonwealth Fund.
The healthcare savings of telemedicine is made clear through a 2011 U.S. Centers for Disease Control study that revealed nearly 80 percent of adults that were discharged from the emergency room went to the ER because they did not have access to a primary care provider. For non-emergent care, the ER is the most expensive and least-efficient form of medical service. An average ER visit costs anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, whereas a telemedicine visit runs around $40, according to Forbes magazine. Healthcare is more manageable and accessible because telemedicine is more affordable.
Sometimes, patients cancel appointments at the last minute, leaving physicians and nurses with extra time in their schedules. Telemedicine is the solution for reallocating untapped, often wasted, time to ease the healthcare shortage.
“Telemedicine services are enabling physicians to make use of unused [time] so that they can treat more patients,” Powell said.
Additionally, telemedicine reduces the need for third-party transportation for older patients and child care for parents needing a healthcare appointment, as telemedicine services can be accessed anywhere.
The ATA compiled the research of over 2,000 evaluative studies related to telemedicine. The studies showed that the quality of telemedicine healthcare services are of equal quality to in-person options.
With about 200 telemedicine networks and 3,500 service locations in the U.S., telemedicine is a rapidly growing facet of U.S. healthcare, though the exact growth rate and market size is hard to pinpoint. For example, almost 1 million Americans use remote cardiac monitors, according to the ATA.
A 2014 study led by a professor at the University of Michigan Health System found that patients with severe conditions, including congestive heart failure, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, benefited from the long-term monitoring telemedicine provides. The findings showed that telemedicine, in some cases, decreased or prevented complications and even mortality in patients. Through a combination of effectiveness, efficiency and quality, telemedicine is a viable solution to ease the healthcare shortage facing America.