How Will Telemedicine Impact the Future of Health Care?

No time. Lack of transportation. Located too far from a provider's office or hospital. These barriers can stand in the way of someone getting the vital medical care they need. Today, however, they are being toppled by a progressive delivery model that's changing the way health care is provided: telemedicine.

What Is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine, or telehealth, involves real-time communication between a patient and a doctor, Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), or other provider. It can be used to treat chronic conditions and for remote patient monitoring, medical education, and specialist consultations.

Telemedicine holds significant promise to provide qualified medical care without the time and hassle of commuting to and from appointments. It can bring medical care into the home to meet some primary and urgent care needs.

The Benefits

Care quality: Numerous studies have demonstrated that care delivered through telemedicine can rival traditional in-person interactions in terms of quality. In fact, in certain specialties — such as mental health — telemedicine has been shown to facilitate outstanding care, with positive outcomes and high degrees of patient satisfaction.

Improved access: Telemedicine can provide high-quality health care services to patients living in rural areas and those with transportation or mobility difficulties. At the same time, telemedicine enables health care practices to cater to a much broader set of patients than those living locally.

Convenience: Telehealth services allow patients to consult with a provider from virtually anywhere, whether it’s their home or the office.

Cost savings: This model has been shown to improve efficiency and lower health care costs through fewer hospital admissions, shorter hospital stays, reduced travel times, and improved management of chronic diseases. For example, one study found that the use of hybrid telehealth technologies could eliminate as many as 387,000 transports to ERs annually, resulting in a cost savings of $327 million.

Stronger team-based care: Telemedicine allows non-clinicians to engage specialists to help with diagnosis and treatment, meaning it can strengthen team-based care. For one hospital chain in Arizona, a combination of telemedicine, team-based care coordination, and home monitoring technologies recently reduced "unnecessary hospitalizations" by a staggering 45 percent, and costs fell by a third.

Accessibility: This model also allows for culturally and linguistically competent providers — such as those versed in sign language or non-English languages — to reach patients whose immediate care surroundings don’t support those needs. For instance, telemedicine has been identified as a successful means of administering mental health services to deaf patients, a difficult health challenge to address given the shortage of professionals who specialize in it. For patients whose conditions or location limit their mobility, telemedicine can also connect the dots in care: a 2015 study found that it was a preferred treatment option for children with disabilities like cerebral palsy.

The Challenges

Difficulty diagnosing. When a primary care provider can’t examine a patient firsthand, there is the potential to miss certain signs and symptoms, which can lead to an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis. For some conditions, it's not always possible to make a diagnosis or facilitate treatment through anything but an in-person examination.

Limited coverage by insurers. Not all telemedicine services are covered by private insurance payers or reimbursed by federal programs. Medicare, for example, places specific restrictions on telehealth services, including the requirement that patients must be located in a medical facility and not their own home while receiving services.

Privacy issues. A clinician providing telemedicine services must adhere to confidentiality standards set forth by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Online communications may be susceptible to hacker activity or privacy breaches that could compromise patient information.

What Does the Future Hold?

The shortage of primary care providers in rural and remote areas, combined with an aging population and millions of newly insured Americans under the Affordable Care Act, provides ample opportunity for telemedicine to flourish. According to a 2014 analysis, the market for telemedicine technologies is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 18.4 percent through the year 2020.

And it appears the industry is paving the way. More private insurers are stepping up to pay for telehealth services. Despite the obstacles still in play, the benefits of telemedicine cannot be ignored. Through the development of strategic, industrywide best practices and regulations, health care professionals can maximize the rewards of telehealth while preserving the provider-patient relationship that is still the foundation of high-quality health care.