Industry’s Capabilities Grow with Technology

Of all the trends affecting healthcare today, one that may simultaneously offer the most potential and pose the biggest challenges is the growth of telemedicine.

Doctors, patients, hospitals, clinics, healthcare companies, and insurance carriers have spent years trying to build a model that allows for the remote delivery of medical services and clinical information using the Internet, mobile phones, and other telecommunications technology.

According to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group, the industry is in a period of rapid growth. About 200 telemedicine networks have 3,500 service sites in the United States, according to the ATA. Almost 1 million Americans are using remote cardiac monitors, and more than half of all U.S. hospitals offer some form of telemedicine.

Overall, the ATA says, more than 15 million U.S. residents received some kind of remote medical care in 2015, and those numbers were expected to grow by 30 percent this year.

A wide variety of services are represented in those statistics, and the ATA has broken them down into four broad categories:

  • Primary care and specialist referral services. This may involve a primary care physician consulting with a patient, or a specialist helping that doctor render a diagnosis. The ATA says this could include the use of live interactive video, as well as diagnostic images, vital signs, or video clips with patient data.
  • Remote patient monitoring. Many patients use devices that collect and send data to a home health agency or remote diagnostic testing facility for interpretation, the ATA says. This could include monitoring everything from vital signs to blood glucose.
  • Medical and health information. The Internet and wireless devices are used by consumers to obtain specialized health information. The ATA notes that this could include online discussion groups to provide peer-to-peer support.
  • Medical education for health professionals. This offering can help healthcare workers earn continuing education credits and provide special seminars for groups in remote locations.

Though telemedicine is still in its infancy as a healthcare delivery model, its use has resulted in some significant successes.

For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article talks about Mercy health system’s Virtual Care Center, which is located near St. Louis and provides remote support for intensive-care units, emergency rooms, and other programs in 38 small hospitals from North Carolina to Oklahoma.

“In the TeleICU section, critical-care doctors sit at oversize video monitors that continually collect data on every far-flung ICU patient and can spot signs of imminent trouble,” the Journal article says. “If a patient needs attention, Mercy physicians can zoom in via two-way camera—close enough to read the tiny print on an IV bag.”

The article notes that, in the past year, ICUs monitored by the Mercy specialists have seen a 35 percent decrease in patients’ average length of stay and 30 percent fewer deaths than anticipated.

Still, that is not the most common use for telemedicine. On-demand phone, video, or email chats with clinicians, any time of the day and any day of the week, are the fastest-growing segment of the industry, according to the Wall Street Journal. These consultations usually focus on non-urgent healthcare questions about colds, the flu, and skin rashes.

However, they are also sometimes used to help with mental health issues. For example, an article from Inside Higher Ed notes that many colleges now are using online portals, text messaging services, and smartphone apps to provide wider access to mental health services on campus. A survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors showed that such “telepsychology” services were offered by 6.6 percent of counseling centers in the 2013-14 academic year, and that rose to 9.1 percent in 2014-15.

While early research suggests that these services can help students with issues like anxiety, the article says, counselors are still trying to determine telepsychology’s usefulness in addressing other mental health issues.

According to a Government Technology article, “teletherapy” is especially useful in rural areas or other places that lack access to mental health professionals.

“Telemental health services, using secure video hookups and high-definition cameras, make it possible for patients to get help without seeing a therapist in person,” the article says. “And the technology allows providers in areas with lower demand to treat patients in areas with higher demand.”

Such improved access is touted by the ATA as one of the primary benefits of telemedicine, but it’s not the only one.

The ATA also says that telemedicine can reduce the cost of healthcare and increase efficiency through better disease management, reduced travel time, and shorter hospital stays. Meanwhile, the quality of services provided through telemedicine can be as good as those given in traditional, in-person consultations, the ATA says, and patients are demanding such services.

Clearly, telemedicine is growing in popularity and in the scope of services it can provide. But the industry still faces regulatory hurdles and quality questions. We’ll examine some of those in the second part of this series.

What are your experiences using telemedicine? What advantages did it offer compared to more traditional mental or physical healthcare services? What do you think the future holds for this part of the medical industry? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

photo credit: