Balancing Healthcare’s Iron Triangle with Telemedicine

Telemedicine’s impact on healthcare access, quality and cost

Telemedicine is the wave of the future. No-one enjoys sitting around a doctor’s waiting room, stuck in uncomfortable chairs with no idea of how long the wait might be. Telemedicine promises a more convenient experience for patients and a radically new approach to healthcare, but it remains a controversial topic with insurance companies and doctors alike.

Healthcare practitioners and organizations are always seeking the “iron triangle” of access, high quality and lost costs. Telemedicine is clearly emerging as the glue that can hold these sides of the triangle together.

Telemedicine on the Rise

An abundance of data shows the inexorable rise of telemedicine. More than half of all U.S. hospitals currently have a telemedicine program, according to the American Telemedicine Association, and there will be approximately 800,000 online consultations in the U.S. this year. IHS predicts that the number of patients using telehealth services to grow from 350,000 in 2013 to 7 million in 2018. BBC Research predicts that the global telemedicine market will grow from $11.6 billion in 2011 to $27.3 billion in 2016.

The numbers speak for themselves, but the telemedicine trend is also backed up by the experiences and expertise of professionals in the healthcare community. A study from Intel found that 89 percent of healthcare executives believe that telemedicine will transform the U.S. healthcare system in the next decade and 90 percent of healthcare executives report that their organizations are currently developing or implementing a telemedicine program.

In 2015, the ATA’s new President Dr. Reed Tuckson said telemedicine had hit the mainstream: “We are not going to be on the periphery anymore. We are center core,” he said.

Why Telemedicine?

A key driver of telemedicine’s momentum is technological advancement, as well as greater access to the technology around the world. In rural areas and parts of the world without a strong healthcare infrastructure, “top medicine” used to be infeasible. Now, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices and the internet, patients can video chat with physicians to help diagnose easily treatable conditions, which may not necessitate an in-clinic visit, as well as rare illnesses, which would require an expensive trip to see a specialist. Telemedicine makes access to quality and expert care available to more people than ever before.

On-demand doctor services vet clinicians so patients do not have to. Patients can now be connected to trustworthy doctors in real time over video chat. This eliminates transportation needs and costs and reduces wait times, which under older appointment conditions could take up to a few weeks.

In addition, telemedicine empowers patients with information. With access to image storage and sharing, patients can keep track of their personal health information. They can also connect with doctors of their choice, rather than be limited to the one who is closest, and seek out second opinions.

Furthermore, telemedicine also helps provide better quality of care. Skeptics of telemedicine question whether patients really do receive better quality care from online consultations. Can telehealth really provide the same caliber of service as a face-to-face visit? For a long time, the answer was no, but that has changed. Today, modern technology allows doctors to effectively see, speak and assess patients, even if they are not in the same room. It also gives physicians access to that patient’s medical history and imaging, in real time with equipment equivalent or better than what you’d find at a typical clinic.

Telemedicine ensures quality care and patient satisfaction by enabling quick and accurate diagnoses, while strengthening doctor-patient relationships and reducing costs. A doctor who is able to see a patient once a month for a chronic condition via telemedicine, instead of four times a year for an in-person visit, will have more opportunities to get to know a patient and build trust, which is built over the long-term. And telemedicine reduces costs by reducing the cost of the doctor’s time.

Bringing Insurance Companies, Doctors on Board

Telemedicine reduces costs in a myriad of ways. For patients, telemedicine means they do not have to travel long distances (and incur the involved expenses) to access care. It also reduces costs-for both patients and healthcare providers—by making the process more efficient.

Under old appointment conditions, a patient might have to wait weeks for an appointment. Telemedicine reduces wait times, thereby increasing the turnover rate per doctor. Allowing doctors to more quickly book checkups cuts down on the cost of an individual patient’s visit. Costs for virtual visits are “around $45, compared with approximately $100 at a doctor’s office, $160 at an urgent care clinic or $750 and up at an emergency room.” When physicians are able to see more patients, and patients can access care more conveniently, illnesses and chronic conditions can be addressed before they progress, worsen, and become more expensive to treat.

Another benefit of telemedicine is it could cause costs to fall for everyday medical needs, as more insurance companies and employers add telehealth coverage to their healthcare packages. Dr. Yaghmai, the founder of rural healthcare telemedicine provider Vigilias, said that although telemedicine allows for expanded care to communities, traditional insurance companies are still very used to paying for medical visits completed within the walls of a physical hospital.

“Many private insurers are not interested in providing coverage for patients seeking care outside of these traditional facilities” he said.

Insurers will need to catch up with technology and change with the times. The American Telemedicine Association estimates that, “Nearly three-quarters of large employers will offer virtual doctor visits as a benefit to employees this year, up from 48% last year [and] Web companies such as Teladoc, Doctor on Demand and American Well are expected to host some 1.2 million such virtual doctor visits this year, up 20% from last year.”

All signs point to telemedicine as the new frontier for innovation, quality and distribution of healthcare and healthcare services. When deployed appropriately, with the rights tools and infrastructure in place, it has the potential to transform the way everyone, including some of the world’s most vulnerable or remote populations, access care. Insurance companies and physicians need to embrace telemedicine to bring their practice into the future.

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