A new study published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) found that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care. Years before this study was conducted, telemedicine was being utilized to treat patients living in remote communities or areas with a shortage of doctors.
One of the two most used types of virtual health along with telehealth, telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. It’s not the same as telehealth, which consists of basic telecommunication tools, such as phone calls, text messages, patient portals and emails that allow patients to communicate with their providers.
Using technologies such as remote patient monitoring, live video conferencing and mHealth (mobile health), telemedicine is employed by almost half of all United States physicians to treat patients. Doctors can use telemedicine to:
- Assess whether or not the patient needs treatment in person
- Provide certain kinds of medical care, such as mental health treatment and assessments for minor infections
- Write or renew prescriptions
- Offer certain types of therapy, such as speech and physical therapy
The American Hospital Association (AHA) notes that about 76 percent of U.S. hospitals now connect with patients and consulting practitioners using telemedicine solutions, and most large employer plans cover at least some telemedicine services. This increased utilization is the primary reason analysts estimate the global telemedicine market will reach $185.66 billion by 2026.
Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 50 health systems in the U.S. had implemented a telemedicine program. During the virus outbreak, the technology was used to address the needs of low-acuity patients with disease exposure concerns and enabled healthcare providers to prevent overcrowding in emergency departments and primary and urgent care clinics.
The increased use of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic was partially boosted by numerous legal and regulatory changes, including expansion of telemedicine services reimbursement, relaxation of technology requirements, implementation of novel approaches to licensure and credentialing, and relaxation of supervision laws related to non-physician providers. According to the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, more than 75 percent of physicians surveyed reported that telemedicine helped them provide better care for patients.
Some research has found that the expanded use of telemedicine might continue. McKinsey & Company noted that 57 percent of providers say they now view telemedicine more favorably than before the pandemic, while 64 report being more comfortable using the technology. Another survey reported that 83 percent of patients say they are likely to continue using telemedicine after the COVID-19 outbreak.
Benefits of Telemedicine Technology
Telemedicine can be utilized in various ways by healthcare providers of all sizes. Some hospitals are using telemedicine to manage chronic conditions, monitor patients in real-time, manage medications, provide individual and group patient education, supervise rehabilitation and self-management techniques, serve as follow-up visits once the patient is discharged and store and forward information, such as medical imaging.
Some research suggests that people who use telemedicine spend less time in the hospital, providing cost savings compared to traditional healthcare approaches. It also aids in improving clinical management, reducing variations in diagnosis, reducing emergency room visits and hospitalization rates and enhancing quality and access to healthcare services.
Healthcare providers offering telemedicine services to patients have the potential to procure an added revenue stream while incurring fewer overhead costs. Some physicians even note that telemedicine visits can actually result in a faster diagnosis and treatment, because patients who live far away from their doctor can often get a quicker remote visit instead of waiting for an in-office appointment.
As with many healthcare technologies, there are drawbacks to the use of telemedicine, including security and privacy issues and lack of broadband internet access, especially for residents of rural and remote areas. Other disadvantages of telemedicine include:
- Care delays: When a person needs emergency care, accessing telemedicine first may delay treatment, particularly since a doctor cannot provide life-saving care or laboratory tests digitally.
- Licensing issues: State laws vary, and clinicians may not be able to practice medicine across state lines, depending on the state in which they hold their license and the state in which the patient lives.
- Technological concerns: Finding the right digital platform to use can be challenging. Clinicians must also ensure that the telemedicine program they use is secure and fully compliant with privacy laws.
- An inability to examine patients: Providers must rely on patient self-reports during telemedicine sessions. This may require clinicians to ask more questions to ensure that they get a comprehensive health history. If a patient leaves out an important symptom that might have been noticeable during in-person care, this can compromise treatment.
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