IT Mobility and Telemedicine’s Place in the Future of Healthcare

Despite the ever-growing prevalence of technology in our society, the Healthcare industry has been slow to fully adopt and embrace IT mobility solutions.  An example of this is the Healthcare industry’s reluctance in adopting telemedicine.  Rather than trying to completely replace traditional doctor visits, telemedicine is aimed at augmenting Healthcare providers’ ability to help patients, by providing offerings based around convenience and improved access to care.  Despite videoconferencing technology being available to the Healthcare industry for 20 years, telemedicine is only available to around to 1 percent of Medicare beneficiaries.

The benefits of telemedicine are obvious, increased convenience and access to care.  What is not as obvious is what is holding telemedicine back from being embraced and utilized.  According to Ateev Mehrotra, a Rand Corporation analyst, “the very advantage of telehealth, its ability to make care convenient, is also potentially its Achilles’ heel…telehealth may be ‘too convenient’”.   You may be asking yourself “how can something being convenient be a bad thing?”

To answer that, one needs to look at Congress’ efforts to stifle the authorization and growth of telemedicine in Medicare due to cost concerns.  The dominant belief in Congress is that telemedicine would increase Medicare expenses.  A number of analysts, including those connected with the Congressional Budget Office, believe that giving senior citizens access to doctors online will not replace costly visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers as proponents of telemedicine claim.  Instead, these analysts believe that authorizing the widespread use of telemedicine would simply encourage seniors to use more services than they currently do, costing more money.

On the other side of the fence, proponents of telemedicine argue that enabling more beneficiaries to get care online would reduce doctor visits and emergency care, thereby reducing overall Healthcare costs.  This belief has lead the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, and many other Healthcare industry officials and experts to argue that it’s time for Congress to expand the use of telemedicine in Medicare.

These calls for Congress to act have been heard, albeit not to the extent they need to be in order to drive significant change. A group of Congressman, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats, unsuccessfully tried recently to add provisions to the law that revamped Medicare doctor payment rules meant to streamline drug approvals.  The Congressmen pushing for the added provisions aimed at broadening the use of telemedicine.

Despite pushback on the aforementioned provisions and others like them from the majority of Congress and the Congressional Budget Office, there have been a number of efforts made outside of Congress by Healthcare organizations and plan providers to utilize telemedicine.  Medicare’s tight lid on telemedicine is showing signs of loosening.  This is apparent by the fact that a number of Medicare accountable care organizations (ACOs), groups of doctors and hospitals that coordinate patient care for at least 5,000 enrollees, have begun using telemedicine.  Medicare Advantage plans are able to offer the option of telemedicine and make their way around traditional regulations because Medicare Advantage plans are paid a fixed amount by the federal government to care for senior citizens.  Therefore, Medicare is not directly paying for the telemedicine services, but rather the services are paid for through plan revenue.  This could be a loophole that that other Healthcare plans and providers use in order to utilize the benefits of telemedicine.

Regardless of how it is achieved, it is clear that there is a movement towards trying to get telemedicine to be a regularly accessible form of providing patient care.  What is less clear is how Healthcare providers will approach this growing industry as it gains more traction.  As Healthcare providers enter uncharted waters with telemedicine, IT mobility will become a crucial issue for Healthcare providers, and Healthcare IT companies will be looked to for enabling the delivery of this virtual care.  If patients are to rely on telemedicine for its convenience and increased access to care, telemedicine services will have to become more reliable and more efficient.

What do you think? Is telemedicine an important part of the future of Healthcare?