Ensuring that patients have access to care when and where they need it is a challenge as old as healthcare itself. Though it’s a historical issue, the provision of readily accessible care has never been more important. Expected physician shortages and mandates from health reform are shining a critical light on how, when, and where providers are delivering care.
As providers experiment with innovative scheduling models, and as care moves to nontraditional settings such as retail pharmacies, telemedicine is increasingly becoming a viable alternative for reaching patients who are located in remote areas, unable to travel, or want a more convenient healthcare experience.
Telemedicine employs technological and virtual platforms (email, smartphones, two-way video, etc.) to enable providers to improve the accessibility, coordination, and quality of care. Through remote monitoring, providers can manage patients with chronic diseases that may not require regular in-person consultations; enhance provider collaboration through physician-to-physician teleconsults; and send reminders, via text messages and alerts, to take medications or fill prescriptions.
The concept of telemedicine is not new. The technologies to deliver care remotely have existed for years (or even decades). But healthcare providers have historically been slow to adopt telemedicine as a substantial patient care access channel. Few, if any, payors have offered reimbursement for care delivered electronically, giving providers little incentive to pursue telemedicine. In addition, providers have had legitimate concerns about the cost of implementing telemedicine technologies. The time associated with training personnel who will use them and the potential for errors in diagnosing and/or treating patients from afar are also points of trepidation.
But as the office-based ambulatory delivery model continues to evolve, the market is changing with it.
- A significant body of state and federal legislation is removing barriers to telemedicine reimbursement, and government and commercial payors are utilizing various revenue streams and business models to support its growth.
- Telemedicine technologies have declined in cost, and the vendor landscape has become more robust.
Couple this improved financial outlook with poor physician access in rural areas, the high prevalence of chronic diseases, and aging baby boomers – along with greater numbers of smartphone users – and it’s no surprise that healthcare technology researchers are projecting a compound annual growth rate for telemedicine of up to 20% during the next 5 years.
As healthcare providers move toward the goal of population health management, telemedicine is poised to become a more common means for reaching patients and managing their conditions. And as provider organizations begin to recognize the potential importance of telemedicine for their patient access strategy, there are a few key questions they must first answer:
- What operational and care delivery challenges is your organization looking to solve?
- How far do your patients live from sites of care?
- What are the demographics and health needs of your organization’s patient population?
- Which services will your contracted health plans reimburse for?
- What is your organization’s capacity and ability to build telemedicine services internally?
- Which companies are the right partners to support your telemedicine services?
- What is the level of technology adoption in your organization, and what are the technology habits of your patient population?
These questions don’t have clear or simple answers. The need for remote care varies among providers and their patients. In future blog posts, we’ll take a closer look at these issues and discuss approaches for determining the right telemedicine strategy for your organization.