The Benefits of Telemedicine Continue to Grow

DECEMBER 04, 2016
Ed Rabinowitz
Columns, Practice Management, Lifestyle, Telemedicine, Technology

The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced plans to fund 80 distance learning and telemedicine projects in 32 states. The goal, in part, is to “connect rural communities with medical and educational experts in other parts of the country.”

Henry Grady, industry manager with SunTrust Bank’s Not-for-Profit Healthcare Specialty Group, says one of the things he continues to hear from many constituents is the growing interest in telemedicine and how it might be delivered.

“The main point is that telemedicine provides a more convenient and accessible patient care experience,” Grady says.

But there are considerable benefits for medical practices as well.

Providing guidance
Grady’s unit at SunTrust provides strategic advice as well as financing for physician practices, hospitals, and health systems that want to develop a telemedicine presence but aren’t sure how to fund or make the venture successful. In many respects, providing a bellwether for these institutions to copy.

“If you’re a specialist, such as a cardiologist or an orthopedist located in Philadelphia, and you want to increase your reach to patients, but you don’t want to open a different office, you don't want to grow your practice physically, and you don’t want to take on more rent or more personnel, you can certainly try to enhance your reach by developing a telemedicine presence electronically,” Grady explains.

This can be accomplished through partnerships regionally or connectivity. Conversely, an internist or primary care physician who’s serving as the first-line of healthcare for a particular population in his or her region can reach outside of that geography through partnerships with insurance companies or rural communities that don’t have the primary care accessibility an urban setting might.

“Health plans are encouraging their plan participants to consider telemedicine along the continuum of care,” Grady says. “Imagine you wake up with a stomach ache, or coughing and sneezing. Before you traipse into that CVS or Walgreens you can simply make a phone call or do a short video conference, and for a few dollars—sometimes as few as $10 or $15—get a diagnosis and even a prescription without having to leave your home or office.”

The Affordable Care Act, Grady explains, has begun to change the healthcare delivery mechanism. Physician acceptance of telemedicine is only one part of the equation. Consumer acceptance is equally important.

“If you’re going to change the model, then you have to give the consumer more choices of how to consume it, and exactly what the cost is in each environment,” he says.

Physicians benefit
As healthcare reimbursement models continue to shift from fee-for-service to value-based care, Grady says that telemedicine will play an ever-increasing role in the area of population health.

“If I’m keeping my population healthy, and not just treating them when they’re sick, I should be rewarded a little bit more,” Grady says. “And the health plans are coming around to that.”

That means for physicians who are providing proactive care—whether that’s a reminder for an annual checkup, or a reminder for particular shots or tests, or it’s a monitoring of a blood pressure medicine that you’ve prescribed—if you go beyond your walls to then monitor and not just prescribe, you are performing population health management. And if you are managing the health of a population, keeping them out of the emergency room, keeping them out of the hospital, then, gradually, physicians will be rewarded for that.

“We’re not quite there yet,” Grady says, “but that’s coming.”

Broad appeal
To date, physician adoption of telemedicine has been slow, but Grady suspects demographics have a lot to do with the adoption rate.

“My guess is it would not be millennials or Gen-Xers who are hesitant,” Grady says. “It’s going to be the older population of doctors and professionals because that’s not the way they were trained.”

But times are changing. Grady says that for large employers, some telemedicine suppliers will install a telemedicine booth at the employer’s physical location. Employees can step into the booth, a lab technician will take some basic readings and attach some monitors, and the employee can be face-to-face with a physician via a telemedicine hookup.

“Literally, these booths are staying busy eight hours a day, five days a week,” Grady says. “I don’t know that specialty telemedicine has developed as quickly as primary care has. It’s a little easier to diagnose a cold or the flu than certain stages of cancer or orthopedic issues. But we’re getting there.”

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