Remember when doctors used to make house calls? Thanks to emerging healthcare IT solutions, patients can once again speak with their physicians and even have a face-to-face consultation right from the comfort of their own homes. But that’s only the beginning.
What is telehealth?
According to the American Telemedicine Association, telehealth encompasses a range of services, from health monitoring and patient consultation to the transmission of medical records. It’s more broadly defined as any electronic exchange of health information. A growing number of healthcare organizations have embraced telehealth because of the benefits it provides to patients and clinicians.
It has not only expanded and improved access to healthcare services, but also increased patient engagement and enabled more efficient care models. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the largest providers of telehealth services. Last year, more than 700,000 veterans accessed VA telehealth services, which include everything from mental healthcare to surgical specialist consultations. But it’s not just veterans who are benefiting.
Improving healthcare access
One of the biggest advantages of telehealth services is easy access to on-demand care. During a telemedicine consultation, a physician can inquire about symptoms, discuss treatment and determine whether a prescription is necessary. More importantly, for patients who don’t have a reliable means of transportation or who struggle with mobility challenges or disabilities that make traveling difficult, remote access can be a huge quality of life improvement. This is especially true for those living with chronic conditions for which frequent checkups are necessary. Telehealth services are also helping to fill healthcare gaps faced by rural communities across the United States — in areas where patients may have to drive for hours to get to the nearest hospital or specialist.
During a TEDx Talk in March 2017, Lindsey Meyers, vice president of public relations at Avera Health, shared how a critically injured child was saved by a doctor more than 600 miles away. Through a video monitor, the doctor was able to guide local clinicians through reinflating the girl’s lungs and stabilizing her condition.
Lowering readmission rates
In-office visits and overnight stays at healthcare facilities can be difficult for individuals in poor health. Telehealth services reduce hospital readmission rates by enabling doctors to monitor patients outside the office. Because of this, many hospitals have already started to include some form of remote monitoring as part of their post-discharge plans. By equipping patients with wearable devices or other wireless technologies, clinicians can monitor vital signs and symptoms and adjust care as needed without an in-office visit. Alignment Healthcare, for example, developed a program to remotely monitor chronically ill and recently discharged patients and reduce 30-day readmission rates. Enrollees were given a package of Bluetooth-enabled monitoring equipment, including a Samsung tablet, blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter and scale.
According to a May 2017 article by Alignment Chief Medical Officer Ken Kim, the organization’s efforts paid off. “Because of the program, Alignment’s seniors are seeing reduced 30-day readmission rates … compared to the national Medicare average readmission rate of about 18%. In 2016, Alignment members enrolled in remote [monitoring] across all markets saw hospital readmission rates of 7.2%.”
Making quality care more cost-effective
In August 2017, hospitals across the country were penalized with Medicare reimbursement cuts due to high 30-day readmission rates. The potential to reduce these rates and avoid penalties has made telehealth a financial priority. Healthcare provider TripleCare was the subject of a study conducted by the TRECS Institute, which found that virtual physician services had both increased care quality and averted 91 unnecessary admissions. The result was $1.3 million in Medicare savings. Telehealth services can also provide patients and healthcare facilities in rural areas with additional benefits. NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association released a report in March 2017 that estimated the average annual cost savings per facility could add up to:
- $5,718 in patient and caregiver travel expenses
- $3,431 in lost wages for time away from work to seek treatment
- $20,841 in hospital costs to retain highly trained staff
With many rural areas facing a shortage of specialists, telemedicine enables individual doctors to reach more patients. And the cost to patients for telehealth consultations is often lower than an in-office visit. By serving more patients in a shorter amount of time, healthcare organizations can cost-effectively grow their membership while increasing care quality and patient satisfaction.