Telehealth use continues to grow nationally, with more providers than ever offering options to patients that expand care beyond the walls of a single doctor’s office or hospital room.
Kaiser Permanente, for instance, has touted a steady increase in its volume of digital transactions. In its annual report released in February, the California-based integrated health system notes that daily online interactions — which include telehealth visits, patient portal logins and secure text messaging — grew by more than 30 percent from 2015. Last year, Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson touted that 52 percent of all 2015 patient interactions were done virtually as opposed to in-person through phone calls, video visits, secure messaging and other technology tools.
At a two-day conference in September hosted by the Transatlantic Telehealth Research Network and sponsored by CDW Healthcare, industry leaders highlighted their accomplishments to date, sharing insights with each other about new tools and trends being adopted both in the U.S. and around the world.
Much of the talk among attendees, though, focused on hurdles that remain to widespread acceptance and adoption.
Those concerns were front and center in discussions among participants, many of whom are telehealth design and implementation innovators.
Fragmented Regulation, Costs Prove Barriers to Telehealth
Disparate regulations throughout the states governing telehealth use, combined with the constant uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act have proved particularly difficult for healthcare organizations to navigate. According to the Center for Connected Health Policy’s “State Telehealth Laws and Reimbursement Policies Report,” updated earlier this month, no two states are alike in how they define and regulate telehealth.
“While there are some similarities in language, perhaps indicating states may have utilized existing verbiage from other states, noticeable differences exist,” the report says. “These differences are to be expected, given that each state defines its Medicaid policy parameters, but it also creates a confusing environment for telehealth participants to navigate, particularly when a health system or practitioner provides healthcare services in multiple states.”
One health system representative made clear that while they’ve made tremendous progress on the technology side, getting reimbursement has been a struggle.
Some international attendees, meanwhile, talked about their difficulties with technology costs and figuring out how to successfully roll out bring-your-own-device setups at their organizations.
Access Physicians Offers a Working Remote Care Model
One organization whose approach to telemedicine garnered much attention from attendees at the conference was Access Physicians. Formed by Drs. Chris Gallagher, a cardiologist, and Eduardo Vadia, a pulmonologist, the provider group was created with a focus on supplementing patient care to hospitals that lack on-staff specialists.
Access Physicians employs 300 doctors who connect to hospitals and outpatient clinics across 12 states via internally developed telemedicine carts deployed to those facilities.
The company has helped staffers at organizations such as CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital in Sulphur Springs, Texas, practice medicine at a higher level. One reason is their technology provides a more seamless path to care; after five years, they’ve gone from requiring 27 clicks to use the carts for patient encounters to none for nurses and one for physicians.
Offering Telemedicine Is the Right Thing to Do
In a survey of executive leaders from telehealth service providers conducted by the American Telemedicine Association earlier this year, the vast majority of respondents (98 percent) said they thought telehealth services created a competitive advantage for organizations that offered the services over those that didn’t. Nearly half of respondents called higher consumer demand the key to growing the telehealth market over the next three years.
Still, organizations shouldn’t approach telemedicine deployment as if it’s an easy way to simply treat more patients quicker. Rather, they should commit to the technology because it’s the right thing to do to provide consumers with care options that help to meet them on their terms, such as in their homes or at their places of work.
As regulatory hurdles catch up with technology, I believe more and more organizations will do just that.