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The MedRisk Blog

Telemedicine: Is It Really a Viable Alternative?

How virtual medical services are breaking down barriers to healthcare delivery.

Telemedicine has been a much-discussed concept for the last 20 years; however, only recently, as the demand for healthcare services has increased, has it made strides toward becoming a conventional option in today’s clinical practices.

In one description by the FDA, telemedicine has been called “an extension of one of the oldest, simplest, and most popular forms of electronic medical consultation: a telephone conversation between doctor and patient or a medical generalist and a specialist.”

This, of course, is a simplification of the sophisticated infrastructure powering telemedicine. Telemedicine as we know it today – in which doctors and patients can securely videoconference smartphone and a patient’s glucose readings can be automatically sent to their provider – would not be possible without modern IT resources that allow for transmission of data between sites, including health informatics, medical data and imaging files. Thanks to this centralization and accessibility of data, today’s doctors can now diagnose patients, monitor and assess patients’ clinical conditions, and communicate more readily with patients as questions arise.

Gauging Patient Interest

In a society where virtually any task can be initiated via smartphone, it should be no surprise that patients are eager to do just that when it comes to a doctor’s visit.

In a 2015 Software Advice report, 75% of respondents said that although they had never utilized telemedicine services, they were interested in trying it in lieu of an in-person visit. Thirty-nine percent of respondents described themselves as “extremely interested” or “very interested” in using telemedicine services, and 71 percent of all respondents said they would “strongly prefer” or “somewhat prefer” online care for minor medical ailments. Only 6 percent said they saw no benefits to telemedicine.

Where Telemedicine Can Address Patient Pain Points

Telemedicine seems appealing even to those who have not yet experienced it. Why is that? Here are just a few of the benefits patients stand to gain in using telemedicine services:

  1. Convenience. Let’s face it. No one is eager to visit the doctor’s office, and if you’re doing so on a workday, it can seriously drain your time while impeding your productivity and focus. Alternatively, telemedicine allows patients to use phone, web chat or video to connect with healthcare providers. Patients get the care they need, when they need it, minus the fuss.

    2. Reduced wait time.
    According to Vitals’ annual “Physician Wait Time Report,” Americans spend an average of 19 minutes and 16 seconds waiting to see their clinician. Although on-site wait times can vary depending on location and specialty, you’ll see an across-the-board reduction with a telemedicine appointment, where schedules are more likely to be kept and online self-registration is a breeze.
  2. Cost effectiveness. Nearly a quarter of respondents (21%) to the Software Advice survey cited not having to travel as the biggest benefit of telemedicine. And for good reason. Traveling to a doctor’s office, especially in a rural area, can be a considerable expense. Not to mention that the services themselves may come with a hefty price tag. According to a 2014 study, traditional office visits average a cost of $136 to $176, but virtual visits range in cost from $40 to $50 per visit.
  3. Simplified communications. It was not long ago that the only way to transmit MRI images was via snail mail. Today, medical documents can be sent and received securely over the internet, allowing both patients and physicians to easily connect with specialists for second opinions or to coordinate care.
Enabling the Mainstreaming of Telemedicine

Despite a shortage of physicians, especially in remote areas, and undeniable interest from consumers, telemedicine is still gaining the momentum needed to become a mainstream option. Gaps in reimbursement rules, regulations, practice standards and licensing must be filled before a springboard is in place for telemedicine to take hold across specialties.

However, telemedicine is projected to see serious growth in coming years. According to the Global Telemedicine Market Outlook 2020, the market for telemedicine technologies, including hardware, software and services, stood at $17.8 billion in 2014, and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 18.4% from 2014 to 2020.

But there is much work to be done. Only after the industry comes together to develop best practices, define regulations and engineer ways to overcome other barriers to implementation will we realize the full extent of telemedicine’s reach and how it will transform the American healthcare experience.