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Will Telemedicine Revolutionize Healthcare?

Nearly every major hospital system is exploring telemedicine options, which have tremendous potential to reach thousands of underserved patients. E-consults and virtual visits are allowing patients the benefit of medical care without having to travel to an office.

Certainly, illnesses that require a lab test for definitive diagnosis are not suitable options for telemedicine. And long term, the patient and doctor relationship can’t be relegated to a video—there’s too much information that needs to come from visualizing and touching the patient, which you can only accomplish with a face-to-face meeting.

However, on a holiday weekend a doctor may be able to virtually look at your swollen wrist, for example, and tell you whether you should proceed to the emergency room for X-rays or whether you just need to apply an ice pack.

According to a Forbes.com article, telemedicine is gaining ground as an alternative to urgent care or visits to the emergency department for minor concerns like ear infections. The article referenced a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study revealing that 80 percent of adults treated and sent home from the emergency room said they sought care at the ER because they lacked access to a primary care provider. Telemedicine visits in those cases could have cost as little as $40—a fraction of the $1,500-$3,000 that it costs to treat non-emergent cases in the ER.

Venture Beat recently reported that 38 percent of employers in a Towers Watson survey are now offering telemedicine benefits to their employees in an effort to encourage lower-cost care options. That number is expected to hit 81 percent by 2018.

For patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, other types of telemedicine tools are serving as a bridge between the clinical setting and home. Using data that’s uploaded to the office from wearables and other home devices, nurses can monitor patients’ vital stats remotely and intervene with timely reminders and guidance. This kind of at-home contact will help reduce patient readmissions to the hospital.

Much of the potential impact of telemedicine actually hinges on legislation. States vary greatly in their receptiveness to telemedicine, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post. Restrictions in some states, for example, require patients to be accompanied by a health professional during a telemedicine session. The technology’s reach is also limited by the provision that doctors must be licensed in every state where they practice medicine—including digitally.

Legal inroads are being made, however. Parity laws in most states now enforce coverage for telemedicine-provided services, according to the American Telemedicine Association. Those that require reimbursement for telemedicine services at the same manner and rate as in-person services will ensure that there’s no disincentive for providing telemedicine services when appropriate.

But although many tout telemedicine’s potential to reign in our skyrocketing healthcare costs, I would argue that healthcare has a more pressing technological need: effective communication. Virtual visits are exciting advances, but hospitals still haven’t figured out a basic workflow need—how to enable providers, nurses and staff to exchange information, lab results and critical data in real time.

Secure messaging and mobile health platforms break down the barriers to clinical communication, and I believe that will make the biggest impact on patient care quality than any other innovation.