Phone it in: A perfect storm takes telemedicine to new heights

March 29, 2016
Michael Sherling, M.D., MBA, Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder, Modernizing Medicine

Telemedicine is by no means a new concept, but several forces currently at play stand to make 2016 the year adoption of this model of remote care hits its tipping point. Advances in mobile technology, such as cutting-edge photo capabilities and secure messaging, make smart devices viable tools for telemedicine. These advances are resulting in a more accessible and user-friendly experience, thereby helping to make the use of telemedicine more attractive to both the patient and the physician. The massive wave of adoption of these technologies has also made smart mobile devices all but ubiquitous in the average household and provider organization. Couple technological advancements with increasing reimbursement options for telemedicine, and we have the perfect storm in place to take telemedicine from an obscure practice to the mainstream of healthcare in the United States.

Growing adoption of modern electronic health record (EHR) systems is helping to bridge the data gap challenge previously presented with telemedicine. The ability to tightly integrate a modern telemedicine system with a data-driven EHR system makes for the easy capture of patient data – whether that capture occurs in-person or remotely. New and innovative ways to efficiently capture patient data in a structured manner during a telemedicine visit ensure that nothing is lost along the way and that the data can be tracked and utilized in the same manner, as though the visit occurred in-office. This will also allow physicians to effectively monitor outcomes over time and ensure that telemedicine aligns well with the growing shift toward value-based care and quality reporting.

Improved camera technology on smartphones and tablets also helps make telemedicine a more attractive option for patients and physicians. This is particularly true for highly visual specialties, such as dermatology. The ability to effectively bring a physician into the living room of a patient through the sharing of high-quality photos further mimics the benefits and efficiency of an in-person visit. It is very likely that the convenience of being able to virtually check with a physician on a condition like a recurring rash will lead many people to manage their care in a more effective manner, rather than waiting until it’s too late or bearing the inconvenience of geographic constraints.

Whether it is blood pressure or sugar monitors, we are also seeing significant advances in mobile medical devices that have the potential to easily interface with consumer smart devices. These technologies will only further serve to bridge the gap between in-office and telemedicine patient visits.

These technological advancements come at an ideal time, as some providers continue to see decreasing reimbursements and experience increased regulatory pressure to provide more cost-effective care. Physicians whose patient base may not be covered for telemedicine can immediately accept cash payments for virtual visits, charging in the $30 to $100 range for virtual visits that are simply paid out of pocket. Many patients could be willing to pay a premium for the convenience of a telemedicine visit.

Reimbursement issues have traditionally been one of the top barriers for telemedicine adoption. Over the last year, we have seen more private plans, as well as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), begin to get a better handle on telemedicine. Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealthcare, and Medicare are just some of the important players that are beginning to support different forms of telemedicine coverage for select members. The majority of current plans have focused primarily on the lowest hanging fruit, in terms of patient populations covered, such as those in rural populations. There are several indications from a number of other payers, both private and federal, that point to a strong desire to provide wider coverage for telemedicine in the coming years. Private physicians who adopt telemedicine services with a built-in revenue stream can expect to retain more of their patients who may otherwise seek telemedicine treatments from alternative providers. This continuity of care is better for the patient’s health – and the practice’s bottom line.

Innovative healthcare professionals will increasingly turn to telemedicine as an added way to serve patients more effectively and expediently – and to ensure they have more in-person time to dedicate to patients with orphan diseases or more complex diagnoses.

While physicians have to observe, understand, and evaluate new technologies before adopting them into their practices, there is a major opportunity at hand for key players in the healthcare industry. From a payor perspective, telemedicine visits may result in reduced healthcare spending, with fewer more expensive in-person visits for conditions that can be handled virtually. From a provider perspective, telemedicine visits can grant more timely access to patients and an additional revenue stream. We have finally hit a point where telemedicine is not only viable, but also very attractive. That is why I expect that 2016 will be the year that we see adoption rates rise and the practice become more widely used than ever before.