How Telemedicine is Transforming the Healthcare Industry
Telemedicine allows patients to consult with medical providers for minor health issues from the comfort of their own home. With this technological advancement, patients may not need to wait weeks or months for appointments in a doctor’s physical office, and may seek treatment right away from providers anywhere within a digital network.
Telemedicine is transforming the healthcare industry — but this innovation hasn’t come without its drawbacks. It’s important to understand how telemedicine works and what it provides while also being aware of the barriers many healthcare providers and patients experience when attempting to use this technology.
What Is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine allows medical providers to remotely analyze patient medical records, symptoms, and other details to provide a diagnosis, opinion, or treatment plan. With online medical data, video conferencing, or other telecommunications, the patient doesn’t need to go into the office or make an appointment with a healthcare professional to receive medical advice.
How Does Telemedicine Work?
The implementation of telemedicine varies by healthcare provider, but in general, it allows patients to interact with a doctor or specialist virtually without an in-person visit. Some telemedicine systems include video conferencing, which allows the doctor and patient to engage through online video and audio.
For example, if a patient has a stuffy nose and cough, they can request a telemedicine appointment with a primary care physician or nurse. Instead of potentially waiting for weeks to get on their doctor’s office visit schedule, this appointment might be made within hours, depending on when the next provider is available through the telemedicine network. The provider and patient connect through video conferencing software and the patient describes their symptoms.
After looking through previous medical records and evaluating these symptoms, the provider diagnoses the patient with a cold. The provider recommends that the patient drink plenty of fluids and get ample rest. If the symptoms don’t disappear within a week, the provider may advise the patient to follow up with an in-person office visit.
Some medical providers may use telemedicine strategies through other means of communication. Patients with conditions that need to be monitored, such as diabetes or thyroid diseases, may communicate with their specialists by email or online chat. Doctors can analyze the patient’s comments to determine whether a medication needs to be changed or an in-person visit is warranted.
Benefits of Telemedicine
The innovation and implementation of an effective telemedicine strategy provides benefits to both patients and medical providers.
24/7 Treatment For Non-Emergencies
Patients don’t need to wait until their doctor’s schedule is clear for an appointment to seek treatment for non-emergencies. With telemedicine, these patients can generally get treatment, referrals, or advice from their doctors at any time.
Since medical providers already have their patients’ records, they may only need to ask a few questions about what they’re experiencing to diagnose and create treatment plans for them. With telemedicine, patients can implement these treatment plans faster without waiting to visit the office.
Lower Healthcare Costs
Healthcare can be expensive, even if patients carry insurance. In 2018, the average hospital emergency room visit cost $2,032 for issues that could have been addressed by primary care physicians. There were over 18 million hospital visits that could have been avoided by a simple consultation with a family doctor.
Patients may visit the hospital for these minor health issues because they don’t want to wait to see their doctor. With telemedicine, these patients don’t have to make a doctor’s appointment months in advance. They can communicate with their primary care physicians at nearly any time, saving them from potentially expensive hospital visits.
Another aspect of telemedicine is called Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM). With RPM, vital information such as a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate, and blood-oxygen level are electronically provided to a medical provider. A thorough analysis is performed and the medical provider offers insight on the patient’s condition and recommends a treatment plan, if needed. No doctor’s appointment is necessary with RPM.
Barriers To Adopting Telemedicine
While telemedicine is a convenient way to seek medical treatment, medical providers and patients may face barriers when attempting to utilize it.
Patient accessibility to technology may be a factor with telemedicine. Patients who don’t have access to a smartphone or tablet may miss out on the convenience of telemedicine. High-speed internet and a phone connection are also required to engage in these sessions, so patients without these services may not be able to utilize this method.
A patient must also be physically and mentally able to operate the telemedicine system and communicate effectively with a medical provider to receive proper treatment. Patients with physical or mental disabilities may not find it possible to utilize telemedicine for treatment or diagnosis.
Coverage and Insurance Reimbursement
While telemedicine is gaining traction in the healthcare industry, insurance companies don’t always recognize it as a viable way to seek treatment. Insurance providers that don’t embrace telemedicine may not offer coverage for patients who seek treatment using this method. Insurance claims that involve telemedicine may be denied and patients may need to pay out-of-pocket for these sessions.
Several states have begun to reform insurance laws and may now require insurance companies to cover telemedicine. Innovative payment models are being developed and consistently improved so insurance providers can cover the costs of telemedicine as they would other more traditional medical visits and treatments.
Patients should understand their health insurance policy coverage before seeking these sessions. They may need to request legal help if telemedicine claims are denied but should be covered.
Privacy and Confidentiality
The healthcare industry must follow certain standards for patient privacy and confidentiality. Medical professionals cannot legally discuss patient information outside of a medical setting unless the patient gives the doctor permission to do so.
Providing data online is always a concern. However, telemedicine systems use data encryption and other security techniques to ensure patient records and confidential information remain safe. While there are data security standards in place on the medical provider’s side, data breaches are still possible for telemedicine users if their mobile phones or other devices aren’t properly secured.
Trusting a Provider You Haven’t Met in Person
Patients who engage in telemedicine sessions with medical providers they haven’t met in-person yet may not feel confident in their knowledge or advice. They may be worried these professionals will miss an important medical issue or provide a misdiagnosis. The last thing any telemedicine patient wants is to be the victim of medical malpractice and ongoing health issues due to a misdiagnosis.
When you meet with a medical professional who already knows you and your medical history, you may be more comfortable disclosing more personal information. A virtual meeting with a doctor you haven’t met face-to-face yet may feel impersonal and uncomfortable.
Telemedicine is a convenient way to seek a diagnosis, discuss treatment options, or have your ongoing health conditions monitored by a medical professional. It’s important to ensure that you have the tools necessary to access this type of care, and to feel comfortable with this communication method, before utilizing it.