Telemedicine: the future of health care

The world is becoming more and more digital, and health care is no exception.

While telemedicine has been around for decades, it has accelerated in recent years with the adoption of virtual visits.

Starting with house calls, progressing to urgent care, and now with 24/7 telehealth, on-demand health care is something individuals have always wanted because no one wants to wait until the next morning to start feeling better.

“Telemedicine has been around for a long time in one form or another,” said West Regional Health Strategies Consultant of UnitedHealthcare Sandra Crews. “Obviously, we have come a long way from there with now what we call virtual visits, people using smartphones [and] computers to have access to different kinds of medical care.”

In the 1940s telemedicine was used to send radiology images between telephone lines. In 1950, a teleradiology system was created in Montreal, Canada. In 1959, the University of Nebraska established a two-way television set up to transmit information to medical students.

Now, telemedicine is evolving to the modern-day technology using smartphones and smartwatches to allow one to monitor their health. According to Dr. Michael Simons, the medical director of Banner Telehealth Network, the technology is now moving towards artificial intelligence and asynchronous communication. 

What started as basically let’s take a camera and put it in a patient’s hand… so a doctor can talk to them and have a more traditional interaction has really moved into a completely different way to provide care which is not only more efficient from a geography agnostic standpoint but also is embedded with tools that enable a different approach to the workflow which makes the physician intrinsically more efficient and provide higher quality care,” Simons said.

But telemedicine does more than just provide expanded access and easier communication between patients and doctors, it helps lower the cost of health care. 

Research shows that telemedicine visits create cost savings by diverting patients away from more costly care settings like urgent care. 

“It does decrease the expense because a lot of things people go to the doctor’s office or urgent care for can be treated via telehealth,” Crews said. “It decreases the cost for the patient, but it also decreases the cost for providers.” 

In the research, a group of doctors collected data from 650 patients who used a telemedicine platform from Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health named JeffConnect.

They found that the majority of health concerns could be resolved from a single consultation — which is a flat fee of $49.

The flat fee not only saves patients money per visit but also saves providers money because they no longer have to pay for the expensive visits to primary care physicians, urgent cares or emergency rooms. According to the report, every avoided emergency department visit had cost savings ranging between $309 to more than $1,500.

“Traditional brick and mortar operation is very costly,” Simons said. “Telemedicine is sort of using technology to address when do you really need a person to help evaluate you and when do you not? And how much of this can we automate and how much of it can we not? Therefore, we can redesign our practices so that when someone truly needs in-person care, there’s now increased access to that.” 

UnitedHealthcare and Banner Care Network have both begun implementing telemedicine into their practice, but more discussion around telehealth is needed to gain wide acceptance.   

“Telehealth is about having the right practitioners with the right skill set… and having the correct workflow to address the needs of the population we’re targeting,” Simons said. “We need to really be able to integrate ourselves in a way that allows us to address the inefficiencies of current operations.” 

It’s just starting to become mainstream and talked about by primary insurance carriers,” Crews said. “[But] there are so many applications…I see it increasing tremendously.”

For more on UnitedHealthcare’s telemedicine program, click here.

For more on Banner’s telemedicine program, click here.

Emily Richardson

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