May 11, 2017 Lauren Ruef
Six U.S. Senators embarked on a historic piece of legislation at the beginning of May that could hold keys to the promised future of telehealth.
Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii is one of the six senators moving the bill forward. The bill is called The Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies for Health Act of 2017. It aims to increase virtual healthcare services for community and rural health clinics, and also to ease some of the existing telehealth restrictions.
Senator Schatz describes what the technology will do for healthcare:
“Telehealth is the future of health care. It expands access to care, lowers costs, and helps more people stay healthy. Our bipartisan bill will help change the way patients get the care they need, improving the health care system for both patients and health care providers."
The bill aims to help Medicaid patients who utilize community health centers, rural health clinics, and/or patients with chronic illnesses. With geography no longer a barrier, clinics and hospitals can serve a more widespread patient population.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth can be a lot of things, but it describes the remote monitoring capabilities of healthcare professionals via online correspondence, video doctor visits, real-time messaging chats with doctors or nurses, mobile or app tools for health management, or support groups that meet virtually.
All of these possibilities are beneficial to patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetics, who regularly visit doctor's offices or clinics for repeat checkups and procedures. Not only is telehealth cost-effective for these patients, it also ensures a more holistic kind of care.
According to a recent KPMG survey of nearly 150 healthcare IT leaders: "31 percent of healthcare providers use video-based virtual care services to improve access to care."
This indicates a growing expression of remote monitoring techniques for patients to receive care, and the potential for health-related wearables to enter the market in a big way.
Improving the patient experience
Harvard Medical School released a study estimating the cost of an in-person doctor's visit, including travel and wait time.
"Average total time per visit was 121 minutes, with 37 minutes of travel time and 84 minutes of clinic time. The average opportunity cost per visit was $43, which exceeds the average patient's out-of-pocket payment."
Add two zeros behind the cost-per-visit figure ($43) and that's the average cost of spending one night at a hospital ($4,300).
To temper these expenses, some healthcare systems are using telehealth to defray expenses by using digital tools for triaging health concerns and identifying the best possible provider before a patient ever shows up at an Emergency Room. This eliminates both patient frustration from long wait times and saves providers time by giving less acute patients medical advice virtually, prescribing an RX online, or routing them through the proper channel to receive care based on a list of questions they answer.
Zoom+Care is one urgent care providing a "live-chat with a doctor" online tool that has found widespread popularity among millennials.
Giving patients the control they want
Many patients prefer to be in control of their own health, and there's no better time than now to take advantage of health apps and educational tools available to walk them through a care plan. Apps for weight loss like Myfitnesspal, WebMD Pain Coach for pain management, and even EKG heart monitoring apps like Kardia are already on the market and growing in popularity.
It has even been reported by some patients that they give more honest answers about their daily habits to an app than they would to a doctor face-to-face. Doctors integrating health app information into a patient assessment or care plan could get a richer picture of the patient's health history, habits, and what care plan would best their lifestyle.
Additionally, health apps can provide much-needed reminders for a fast and healthy recovery for patients who are otherwise bombarded by paperwork and a list of instructions at the conclusion of a hospital visit or doctor's appointment on which medications to take, when, and for how long.
Removing geographical barriers
For those living in rural areas with limited health care access, or even patients who are seeking treatment in war-afflicted areas, telemedicine, video conferencing, and online learning are becoming imperative to saving the lives of refugees where specialists, or health care professionals in general are scarce.
This breakdown of geographical barriers represents a larger facet of what is happening with the globalization not only of healthcare, but of the world. Healthcare's success in this environment is dependent upon its willingness to navigate these changes by adopting telehealth tools as part of good patient care.
Technology may be one of the primary differentiators between the leading healthcare organizations who know how to proactively cut costs for patients and hospitals, and those who fall behind the curve with traditional processes. Grasping these outcomes and understanding what new telehealth trends mean for the future of healthcare means a more informed patient population, a wider scope of tools used to fight chronic illnesses and manage pain, and less in-person visits for those who are finding the answers to ailments, filling prescriptions, and getting advice from a licensed medical professional all from the comfort of home.