Telemedicine: A New Way of Delivering Healthcare

Insight from Ajaypal Panesar originally published on October 29th, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world more than anyone could have predicted. Within a matter of weeks, many states were in a lockdown to limit the spread and hospitals filled up quickly with coronavirus patients. The pandemic placed the world in a state of anxiety and uncertainty — our knowledge of the coronavirus was limited and even today a vaccine hasn’t been fully approved. Patients seeking routine and mandatory health services halted medical visits due to personal concerns of the virus or lack of access to care at the time. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought telemedicine into a new light by solving major issues in our healthcare system such as cost and accessibility of care.

Telemedicine is the remote delivery of healthcare services, such as health assessments or consultations, by means of telecommunication technologies such as videoconferencing and remote monitoring. It was created largely in part to the lack of access to healthcare in both rural and urban areas. Currently, about 59 million Americans reside in areas where there are shortages of primary care providers. Long delays when attempting to schedule a healthcare visit and high healthcare costs leave many patients frustrated.

Telemedicine improves access to care for patients that are too sick to travel long distances or those without a mode of transportation. Patients also save money since the average telehealth visit is $40 — $50 compared to the average estimated cost of $136 — $176 for in-person acute care. Due to these benefits, the use of telehealth in hospitals has grown rapidly. As of 2017, 76% of hospitals have fully or partially implemented computerized telehealth systems and 61.2% of hospitals have implemented remote patient monitoring capabilities. Furthermore, telemedicine also benefits healthcare institutions by lessening costs associated with office and emergency room visits. By reducing the financial impact of a patient not showing up to their appointment and enabling primary care providers to conduct appointments without additional office staff, operational costs decrease and available office hours are extended.

The primary factor curtailing the implementation and use of telemedicine are low reimbursement rates. Although it has been implemented more and more over the past five years, telemedicine still represents a small portion of the country’s total healthcare expenditures. In 2015, Medicare spent $14.4 million on telemedicine services, making up less than 0.01% of total spending on healthcare services. Medicare reimburses providers for telemedicine services only when they are conducted at specific sites such as physician’s offices, hospitals, rural health centers, and skilled nursing facilities. Reimbursements are only provided for services in areas with a shortage of healthcare professionals and in non-metropolitan areas, which excludes many urban patients. However, changes are being made to further increase the access and reimbursement of telemedicine. Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have telemedicine parity laws that mandate private insurance companies to pay for telemedicine services. The problem is there is a lack of uniformity in the specifics of these laws, resulting in variations in reimbursement rates state to state, and a large number of insurers such as Medicare and Medicaid do not fall under these mandates.

Telemedicine continues to positively impact the delivery of healthcare. This exciting technology can offer better patient access, better care management, and more affordable care if implemented properly. With proper communication tools, telehealth can aid rural communities in managing care and provide access to specialists that might otherwise be difficult to connect with. As the technology evolves, telehealth services and processes will continue to develop and become more integrated into healthcare consultations and remote monitoring.

Sources:

Mahar, JH, et. al. “The Future of Telemedicine and What’s In The Way”. Consult QD. Cleveland Clinic. 19 Jan 2020, https://consultqd.clevelandclinic.org/the-future-of-telemedicine-and-whats-in-the-way/

Gorke, Jeff. “Telehealth Continues To Change The Face Of Healthcare Delivery — For The Better”. Forbes. Forbes Magazine. 19 Jan 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffgorke/2019/09/24/telehealth-continues-to-change-the-face-of-healthcare-delivery-for-the-better/#7d29b5e5565f

“Fact Sheet: Telehealth”. American Hospital Association. 19 Jan 2020, https://www.aha.org/system/files/2019-02/fact-sheet-telehealth-2-4-19.pdf

Ajaypal Panesar (Director of Membership) is a senior from North Hampton, New Hampshire, pursuing a degree in Economics. He is also a pre-dental student, hoping to attend dental school after graduating from UNH. On campus, he is a member of the Honors Program, a member of the Hamel Scholars, and works as a Student Assistant at the Office of the President at UNH.