Is telehealth and telemedicine viewed by your providers as nonessential? Do you think of it as a bonus or “add on” service, maybe even an extravagance?
You might want to reconsider. Telemedicine saves lives. For far too many folks, telemedicine is their only hope.
Some of you may remember the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors. The show opened with a monologue, “We have the technology, we can rebuild him…” Though science fiction, the United States does indeed possess a wealth of technology, as well as a track record for successfully performing numerous medical firsts. In the States, almost anything can be fixed—or so most of us tend to believe.
But American healthcare is not number one on the global stage. To the contrary, the United States healthcare system is in crisis.
The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, France, and Canada—what do these countries have in common? Their healthcare is better than ours.
The above ten countries outperform the U.S. in terms of access to healthcare, health system quality, efficiency, and the overall health of their citizens. At the same time, no other country’s annual healthcare spending comes close to U.S. spending, according to the survey Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How the Performance of the U.S. Healthcare System Compares Internationally, 2014 Update. In fact, the study reports that the U.S. spends 40% more per person than the top-ranking U.K.
“But This is America!”
While it may seem hard to believe—after all, this is America—20% of our population, over 50 million people, live in areas with a shortage of physicians and no access to healthcare specialists.
“The relative shortage of physicians in rural areas of the United States is one of the few constants in any description of the U.S. medical care system,” writes Roger Rosenblatt and L. Gary Hart in Physicians and rural America, a study published by the Western Journal of Medicine. The authors report that “only 9% of the nation’s physicians practice in rural communities.”
To worsen matters, the 2017 update to The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2015 to 2030, a study conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), predicts that the shortage of physicians in the U.S. is on the rise. On the backdrop of our growing and aging population, this study predicts a shortfall ranging from 34,600 to 88,000 physicians by 2025.
“By 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will grow by 55%,” said Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, AAMC president and CEO. This is “especially troubling,” considering the healthcare needs of this population.
Access to Primary Care
Authors of the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How the Performance of the U.S. Healthcare System Compares Internationally, 2014 Update attribute deficiencies in access to primary care, as well as inequities and inefficiencies in our healthcare system, as major factors in our global healthcare ranking. It is within our grasp, however, to change this.
Provisions in the Affordable Care Act have extended coverage to millions of people in the United States and can facilitate vast and necessary improvements in access to timely and affordable primary care. And here’s where telehealth and telemedicine come into play.
Referring to the shortage of physicians, Dr. Ira Nash, senior vice president and executive director of Northwell Health Physician Partners in New Hyde Park, New York, told CBS News that, while the survey results are dismal, healthcare is evolving. “Technologies such as telemedicine may play a bigger role, reducing the need for more specialists.”
Nash isn’t the only one who recognizes the potential of telemedicine. A growing consensus views this technology as a remedy to problems plaguing U.S. healthcare, particularly in regards to providing medical care to underserved populations.
We can address access and cost issues through telehealth, including travel costs and travel restrictions. We can extend the reach of our physicians and our specialists.
The Telehealth Imperative
Teleservices are more than a trend in healthcare—and the participation of your organization is about more than keeping up with the Jones. Telemedicine is about more than money, dare we say. That’s not to minimize the importance of its revenue opportunities. Quality healthcare does not exist if quality physicians can’t afford to stay in practice.
In the final analysis, though, with an eye on the American landscape, the limits of our healthcare system, and the future of our aging population, you can see the mounting need. Telehealth is not an extra or an extravagance. It is an essential. It is the one resource that transcends our limits.
Help is But a Phone Call Away
For every story, there are countless others—stories like MaLea Fox’s. The 7-month-old infant woke up with a 102-degree fever, and her mom, Ashley Graber, took MaLea to a hospital in Seaside, Oregon. A physician examined MaLea, diagnosed her with a virus, and instructed Graber to take MaLea home and give her Children’s Tylenol. Four hours later, Graber struggled to wake her daughter. She also noticed a bruise-like rash on MaLea’s abdomen.
Graber rushed MaLea to a second hospital in Astoria, Oregon where the on-call pediatrician suspected meningococcemia. The pediatrician then requested a telemedicine consultation with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) 100 miles away. Utilizing a secure, two-way audio-video communications system, Dr. Jennifer Needle, an OHSU pediatric intensivist, examined MaLea and supervised her care. Dr. Needle, with the help of physicians from the community hospital, was able to save the child’s life. This would not have been possible without telecommunication technology connecting urban resources with rural needs.
“Can You Hear Me Now?”
Where is your practice in terms of telehealth and telemedicine services? Are you part of The Network? The healthcare crisis in the United States is poised to worsen. Make no mistake—this isn’t a rural problem for rural communities to solve. This is an American problem. This is something for which we must all do our part.
Take up the telehealth imperative—and improve your patient care and outcomes while maximizing your reach.
For a better understanding of telehealth/telemedicine services, stick around for Part II of this series, The U.S. Healthcare Crisis: Telemedicine to the Rescue.
To get up to speed on telemedicine technology, guidelines, coding, and reimbursement, pick up TCI’s Telemedicine & Telehealth Handbook for Medical Practices 2018.