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Telemedicine is the broader definition of a practice that allows medical clinicians to provide health-related support to their clients using audio and video technology. We also use telehealth and virtual care to discuss non-clinical services offered in this space.
Telemedicine is revolutionizing healthcare delivery in the United States and many developed nations. The convenience, cost-effectiveness and personalized nature of this health care option make it a viable and, in some cases, the preferred choice for many patients who need medical support but have difficulties accessing physicians or practitioners within their geographic boundaries.
If supported in most healthcare settings, Telemedicine can dramatically improve access to medical care and the efficiency of medical visits so that physicians and practitioners can attend to more patients in need.
The healthcare industry faces many harsh realities as the United States finds its way out of a global health crisis. These include overwhelmed medical facilities, fewer healthcare service workers and physicians, increased operating and service delivery costs and high risks to vulnerable members of the population who could be exposed to other illnesses with prolonged presence in healthcare facilities.
Recent data compiled by the U.S Department of Health & Human Services revealed a dramatic spike in Telemedicine demand and use during and after the global health crisis.
Pros and cons of Telemedicine
Telemedicine and telehealth have many benefits, which include the following:
- Improved access to physicians and general practitioners
- Reduction in physician burnout
- Reduction of in-person wait times due to the ability to triage and pre-assess patients if hospital visitation is required.
- Convenience to be at home (patient and provider)
- Cost and time savings
In addition to the benefits above, Telemedicine and Telehealth naturally come with their challenges.
Some of these include:
- Virtual consultations require access to technology, and the digital divide between those who have and those who don’t can limit access for vulnerable members of society.
- Difficult diagnosis. Virtual diagnosis may challenge physicians and practitioners in providing an accurate diagnosis if they cannot make complete assessments themselves and must rely on the patient to provide correct or complete information.
- It may not be a good substitute for in-person care for more serious medical conditions.
- Lack of insurance coverage for telemedicine services.
- Policy and legal restrictions limit how care is provided and in which settings.
The benefits seemingly outweigh the challenges. This could explain why there has been a dramatic rise in the demand for and use of these services.
Before 2020, Telemedicine was showing a steady increase in Hospital settings. According to a fact sheet issued by the American Hospital Association in February 2019, “76 percent of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through video and other technology.”
Significant increase in demand for behavioral services
Since that time, recent statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services show a “63-fold increase” in the use of Telemedicine during 2020. An increase from approximately 840,000 patients in 2019 to nearly 52.7 million in 2020.
This growth demonstrates an increased awareness of and availability of Telemedicine services. Though this growth has been monumental, the most notable increase has been in behavioral health services.
The data revealed that telehealth was most prevalent among behavioral health specialists.
“Visits to behavioral health specialists showed the largest increase in telehealth in 2020. Telehealth comprised a third of total visits to behavioral health specialists.”
With this knowledge, practitioners, insurance companies and organizations can use this data to support their clients, workers and patients by customizing service options to meet their unique needs. Ensuring policies are created or modified to satisfy this demand can put these stakeholders further ahead to benefit from this growing trend. It will further help them to add value to their patients/clients.
Broadening access for racial minorities and rural patients
One of the challenges of Telemedicine use is the apparent digital divide that disadvantages some groups over others. For example, one statistic from the Medicare Telehealth Report points out that black people were the least to use telehealth services.
With diversity and inclusion at the forefront of many conversations in the healthcare industry and workplaces, removing systemic and technological barriers could help improve this group’s overall participation.
As for rural users, limited access to broadband services and practitioners hinders the ability to participate in Telemedicine fully. Therefore, when creating or revising policies, insurers, companies, Medicare and Medicaid providers should consider these limitations to improve their participation.
The future is hybrid
The global Telemedicine Market generated $40.20 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $431.82 billion by 2030, registering a CAGR of 25.9% from 2021 to 2030
All stakeholders in the industry must be willing to look at the challenges and opportunities to innovate and create policies, systems and processes to keep up with this demand.
The hybrid service delivery model that mixes in-person delivery with digital care will be the most effective at alleviating some challenges and maximizing the benefits.
Policy changes supporting telemedicine
Policy changes through Medicare, Medicaid and insurance are being explored to broaden access and change the rules that would otherwise restrict who can participate in Telemedicine.
There are many legal and policy considerations to factor in. Some of these include protecting the integrity of the health system by monitoring and overseeing the licensure of professionals, online prescribing, privacy and security concerns and combatting fraud and abuse.
The global health crisis forced policymakers to waive existing Medicare and Medicaid rules so patients could get support when and where they needed it most.
Looking ahead, the growth in the Telemedicine industry is unprecedented. It has the potential to improve patient care significantly and positively change the direction of the healthcare sector, provided all stakeholders seize the opportunity.