After decades of delay, market forces may be coming together to push telemedicine to the forefront of healthcare. Not only does telemedicine making it easier and cheaper for consumers to consult with doctors, it's also having an important and evolving effect on acute care and chronic disease management.
The telemedicine market is expanding dramatically, especially in the mobile arena, where dozens of startups have sprung into existence to offer consumer videoconferencing with physicians. Not only are telemedicine consults a convenient way to see a physician, they're also being adopted as an alternative to expensive in-person urgent care. In fact, according to a study by telehealth vendor First Stop Health, more than 90% of telemedicine calls with doctors are substituting for costly trips to EDs or urgent care clinics.
The cost advantage offered by telemedicine visits is becoming increasingly interesting to employers, as well. Research by employee benefits firm Towers Watson concludes that while only 5% of employees in the US have a telemedicine benefit provided by their employers today, 37% of employers expect to offer telemedicine consultations to their employees in 2015, with another 34% considering offering telemedicine in 2016 or 2017.
But the growth in telemedical consultations is just the tip of the iceberg. Other increasingly popular telehealth services include remote clinical monitoring of home-bound patients, mobile tools for patient self-management and technologies for mobile transitions of care/care coordination.
Research firm Frost & Sullivan also expects to see tele-mental health, tele-imaging, medication management systems, tele-emergency services, remote ECG services, personal emergency response systems, tele-pharmacy and retail telehealth kiosks emerge and have an impact within the next five years.
What's more, health plans are slowly and grudgingly beginning to pay for telehealth services. That includes Medicare, which may go even further if a proposal released this summer goes through. Under the new rules, Medicare would pay for wellness and behavioral health telemedicine visits, including telehealth sessions for psychoanalysis, family psychotherapy and for "prolonged service in the office or other outpatient setting requiring direct patient contact beyond the usual service."
Despite optimistic predictions by many pundits, some technologies which caught the eye of healthcare early adopters don't seem to be making big inroads in telehealth. One prime example of this is Google Glass, a $1,500 pair of smart glasses from Google which caused an initial stir among clinicians when it was released last year. While they're interesting, as prominent technology critic Robert Scoble has noted, the Glass can be challenging to use, hard on batteries and can't handle many apps.
Admittedly, though, there are also Glass fans who still feel that the smart glasses will have a big impact on healthcare, with 3rd party developers offering virtual dictation, telemedicine consults, recorded procedures, augmented reality software that puts information into the clinician's field of vision and even direct communication with EMS staff.
The bottom line seems to be that while it may take a while for key telemedicine technologies and approaches to sort themselves out, they're moving into the mainstream more quickly than they ever have before. It seems likely that telemedicine is going to have a significant impact on healthcare delivery in the near future.
Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.