The reality of virtuality:telehealth heralds the death of Distance
By Tirupathi Karthik, CEO, Napier Healthcare Solutions
T hese are exciting times. The healthcare industry is witnessing major shifts in terms of new technologies to provide better and timely medical services. One of the key transformational phenomena is the delivery of medical services via latest telecommunications technologies that are evolving at an amazing pace.
Thanks to ‘Telehealth’– an umbrella term covering a broad variety of technologies – it has become possible to create effective and cost-efficient care delivery models that facilitate better patient care. From telephone consultations and live video feeds (via Skype like calls) to digital CT scans and remote monitoring of intensive-care units, telehealth is making healthcare accessible like never before. The growth in mobile healthcare (mHealth), as more patients now use smartphone’s and video chat than ever before, has just added a powerful new dimension to the concept of telehealth.
The numbers tell the story: more than half of all U.S. hospitals now have a telemedicine program in place. The number of patients using telemedicine services is likely to increase twentyfold to 7 million in 2018, up from less than 350,000 in 2013 (as per Cisco Customer Experience Report). Similarly, according to a recent report from the research firm KLAS, 81 percent of healthcare providers already using telehealth services plan to make additional investments in the future. Surely, there must be some solid benefits for them to put more of their money in?
“A critical success factor for telehealth is reliable Internet connectivity and bandwidth”
At the risk of oversimplifying things, I believe it can be summarised as Care with Communication and Collaboration.
For patients, telehealth is emerging as a convenient option because it enables easy access to healthcare services remotely. In fact, many experts believe that virtual visits are far superior to “real” visits as it eliminates the discomfort of the waiting room experience for a nailing person. In addition, patients can expect best care services thanks to the ready availability of all relevant patient records, which are instantly accessible on screen during a consultation.
Of course, telehealth cannot completely replace visits to the doctor’s, particularly in cases where physical examinations are required for further diagnoses and prescription of the next course of treatments. But it can see to routine follow up health monitoring, rehabilitation and maintenance of stable health conditions. Plus it is highly cost-effective and efficient for delivery of services that do not require physical examination by a doctor for diagnoses and administration of treatment, such as with speech therapy or for handling behavioural health issues.
Benefits for Patients
• More frequent contact with doctor
• Access to specialist doctors
• Convenient, on-demand care
• Saves time and money on travel, especially for patients in rural areas
According to a recent study, doctors have reported about being able to successfully treat their patients almost, 83 percent of the time. Many patients visit a doctor with minor conditions that more often than not don’t require an in-person treatment. According to the American Medical Association and Wellness Council of America, about 75 percent of regular doctor, ER, and urgent care visits can be classified as unnecessary as they could be handled effectively via phone or video.
Benefits for Doctors
• More frequent contact with the patient
• Fills gaps in care
• Ability to handle more appointments in one day
• Flexibility and better work-life balance
• Fewer appointment cancelations
• Happier and engaged patients
• More profitable practices
Key Challenges to Adoption
Despite all the positive impact from the use of telehealth and remote patient monitoring, some key challenges still exist for more widespread and faster adoption of telehealth. According to a survey from the Robert Graham Centre for Policy Studies, the American Academy of Family Physicians and Anthem, over half of the doctors considered a lack of payment to be the top barrier in using telehealth in their practices.
The difficulty in getting reimbursed through insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid in the US is a huge disincentive. The tide is turning though as more private insurers are beginning to provide telemedicine cover to healthcare providers just like in the case of in-person visits.
The other challenge pertains to licensing. A physician wanting to offer telehealth services must be licensed in a variety of locations with licensure granted by individual state (in the US). The licensing/regulatory framework will have to ease up, both within the US as well as internationally. This is also true in instances where transborder and teleconsultations are involved.
Many providers fear that telehealth may be restricted to being just an add-on to existing service, i.e., a reimbursed phone call or Skype chat, which usually takes place before or after the in-person visit. By facilitating clearer and sharper interaction between the healthcare provider and the patient, telehealth can very much be a stand-alone service that can eliminate in-person visits in a lot of cases.
A critical success factor for telehealth is reliable Internet connectivity and bandwidth; however, with the advances made in speed of access to the Internet, this is unlikely to be a huge impediment, except in some countries that are yet to get their telecom infrastructure to modern standards.
Why Now is the Right Time to Embrace Telehealth
In his 2016 budget proposal, the US President Barack Obama has provisions to allow Medicare Advantage organizations to use telehealth mediums to deliver medical services. This will purportedly generate more than US$160 million in savings over the next decade.
According to American Telemedicine Association (ATA), CEO, Jonathan Linkous, “…this represents an important victory for telemedicine, Medicare patients and the nation’s taxpayers. This policy signals a significant foot-in-the-door toward transforming the way healthcare is delivered.”
We agree that this move will speed up the adoption of telehealth among more healthcare providers in the US. Obviously, healthcare providers will need to be geared up with stronger network infrastructure and better software systems to harness the opportunities that telehealth provides. After all, you can’t ignore a segment that is projected to be about US$36.3 billion by 2020, can you?
Established in 1996 as a healthcare IT products and Service company, Napier Healthcare Solutions delivers significant value to the stakeholders of the healthcare industry.