There’s no denying the meteoric rate at which telemedicine has grown in just a few short years. What was once a niche practice has become nearly omnipresent among the nation’s hospitals and clinics in some capacity.
In fact, it’s now commonplace to encounter at least some telemedicine or telehealth equipment on a trip to the doctor’s, whether it’s a medical device that captures medical images for remote viewing or a high-resolution webcam used for video conferencing consults. One consideration that telemedicine proponents may wish to consider is, now that telemedicine is no longer strictly a niche segment of the industry, is there a possibility that it may become even more prevalent than traditional medical practices?
It may be difficult to predict just how telemedicine and traditional practices may evolve with, around and in response to one another in the years to come. But it is possible to look at existing trends concerning the growth of telemedicine to predict how this exciting technology may continue to develop.
The incredible growth of telemedicine
If you were to ask a handful of randomly selected physicians, doctors and nurses even 10 years ago about telemedicine, chances are few would have an in-depth understanding of this part of the industry, if they were even aware of it at all. But things have changed in a big way for telemedicine over the past decade.
According to a recent survey from Becker’s Hospital Review, a whopping 84 percent of respondents indicated that further development of telemedicine technologies was either “important” or “very important.” Even more striking is the contrasting statistic – only a meager 3 percent of providers noted a belief that further telemedicine development was unimportant. Similarly, while telemedicine may still be in nascent stages for many practices, these procedures and technologies have been introduced into an overwhelming number of practices. Only 8 percent of the Becker’s survey respondents claimed that they currently had no telemedicine solution established.
Telemedicine allows doctors to consult with specialists anywhere in the country in real time.
What issues are important to the industry?
Like with the development of any new trend, telemedicine growth is affected largely by issues that are important to doctors and nurses on the front lines. Becker’s revealed that the main factors cited for increased telemedicine adoption in recent years were, not surprisingly, related to improving quality of care and expanding a clinician’s effective area of practice, in that order. Half of survey-respondents listed the ability to offer better care as a main motivation for further exploring telemedicine, while 18 percent indicated their excitement at the prospect of telemedicine helping to reach new patients.
Forbes further explored some of the top issues healthcare professionals have identified as major sticking points. Among some of these primary problems were too much unnecessary care and money wasted on these procedures, as well as improper care being delivered to patients resulting in additional patient expense or even extra harm.
“Half of survey-respondents listed the ability to offer better care as a main motivation for further exploring telemedicine“
Telemedicine to the rescue?
These issues cited by Forbes apply not just to telemedicine, but to the healthcare industry as a whole. That said, there are some important ways in which telemedicine may be uniquely positioned to alleviate or even eliminate some of these problems. For example, the stated problem of too much waste spending can be mitigated by effective use of telemedicine technologies. Features like remote patient exams and video conferencing can connect rural patients and their primary care physicians with specialists at nearby metropolitan hospitals as a means of acquiring a specialist opinion. This may play a major role in reducing problematic diagnoses by connecting a primary care physician or clinical staff with specialists for little cost thanks to telemedicine innovations.
Keeping operations costs down can also be achieved thanks in part to the reduced need for patient transfers. For example, Partners Healthcare reported that just within the city of Boston, around 1 in 8 patients who come to Massachusetts General Hospital or Brigham and Women’s Hospital are transfers from one of the area’s other hospitals. This sort of patient transfer can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in patient transfer costs every year.
However, effective telemedicine solutions can more or less eliminate these costs and in many cases can also create opportunities for additional revenue. Instead of forking over operational dollars to move patients to a different facility, practices can treat patients on-site with the help of telemedicine. All that is needed is an online encounter management portal and some remote medical devices, not to mention a reliable and secure Internet connection, and it’s possible to connect patients instantly to specialists anywhere in the country.
Integration versus assimilation
The key question still remains: Will telemedicine overtake traditional practices in the years to come? The short answer is no. A more likely interpretation is that more clinics and hospitals will begin to augment and supplement many of their existing practices and procedures with telemedicine technology.
Telemedicine is not a practice of care, it is a tool for healthcare practitioners. Rather than phasing out one in favor of the other, it’s more likely that the healthcare industry will see a synthesis of new practice procedures that emerge as a unique result of integrating the unique advantages of telemedicine technology into the daily operations of practitioners.