How Close Are We to Ubiquitous Telehealth?

Despite user experience and reimbursement challenges, advances in remote care delivery remain steady.

Now more than ever, patient care is a concept that extends beyond the walls of any one doctor’s office or hospital. To provide the highest quality treatment, especially for patients who may live hundreds of miles from the physicians they need to see, collaboration between clinicians is paramount.

By connecting providers with patients and other facilities, telehealth technologies and mobile-facing tools help to bridge those divides and optimize care delivery. And telehealth use by healthcare organizations appears to be trending upward. Adoption of telemedicine technology increased by more than 3 percent annually between 2014 and 2016, from 54.5 percent to 61.3 percent, a 2016 HIMSS Analytics survey notes.

VA, Employers Make Telehealth Access a Priority

The Department of Veterans Affairs represents one organization making notable strides in telemedicine use. This month, VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin announced plans to issue a regulation authorizing VA healthcare organizations deploying such tools to provide service to veterans regardless of location.

In addition, the VA is ramping up the deployment of a new application — VA Video Connect — that connects veterans to VA providers through computers and mobile phones. Already, more than 300 VA providers at 67 hospitals and clinics use the app.

Employer health plans also increasingly offer telehealth visits as an employee benefit, according to the Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey conducted by the National Business Group on Health. Nearly all employers surveyed (96 percent) say they plan to make such services available next year in states where it is allowed.

Comfort Levels, Payment Hamper Widespread Adoption

Still, troubling hurdles remain, hindering widespread adoption of such tools.

Only nine percent of providers are “very comfortable” with the idea of telemedicine, according to CDW Healthcare’s 2017 Patient Engagement Perspectives Study; 46 percent of healthcare professionals surveyed say they are “somewhat comfortable.” Their top concerns? The ability to hold a thorough consultation over video (70 percent) and, not surprisingly, privacy (43 percent). While improvements to technology can help to stem some of the user experience concerns, the issue of cybersecurity hangs over the industry like a black cloud.

What’s more, telemedicine payment and coverage restrictions inhibit the use of these tools for treating Medicare patients, a vulnerable population which could benefit from the increased monitoring that such setups can provide, a report published earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office finds. While telemedicine reimbursement under Medicare has grown nearly two-thirds since 2014, overall spending on telemedicine remains just one drop in a very large bucket — Medicare spent $588 billion in 2016, $30 million (or 0.005 percent) of which was dedicated to telemedicine, according to Politico’s Morning eHealth.

The industry and government collaboratively must address these challenges for growth to continue.

Looking Out at the Future of Remote Care

Despite the hurdles, as development matures, providers’ experience deploying such technologies will continue to improve. Additionally, states are increasingly adopting legislation that makes it easier for doctors to see their patients remotely. That trend won’t likely reverse itself.

Telehealth and remote care progress can’t happen overnight. More likely, the steady advances in use and policy will continue, which no doubt is a win for patients and providers.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.

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Aug 24 2017