Because of the social distancing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, primary care physicians have not been able to offer in-office appointments in all but the most urgent cases, putting a severe strain on resources and operations. The results are dire: about 20% of primary care practices predict they will be forced to shut down, and one expert predicted that the United States could lose 50% of primary care practices.
Most physicians have high overhead costs, such as rent, insurance and personnel costs, making a shutdown of only a few weeks financially disastrous. This is part of the reason why it makes sense for physicians to respond in this uncertain environment by seeking opportunities to provide a telehealth solution for their patients. In addition, it clearly lowers the risk of infection, on both sides. Implementation of telemedicine could help them to not only remain viable, but also lead to playing a greater role in filling the physician shortage and addressing the needs of those living in rural areas.
A number of healthcare organizations have been rolling out telecommuting options and offering telemedicine services. These physicians communicate with patients remotely via computer and mobile technology to provide counseling to those who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 and need instructions on the proper means to prevent exposing others. With telemedicine, clinical services are available where and when it’s needed, enabling patients to get physician advice without risking a visit to high population areas and hospital environments.
Specialty care providers, who may not have previously seen the value of virtual appointments, are also beginning to recognize the benefits of telemedicine and have begun adopting technology to maintain their practices during the pandemic – and beyond.
Benefits of Telemedicine
Telemedicine has proven to be a critical way to share health information regarding the spread of the infection, identifying new areas of infection and serving as a means of containment. A national centralized physician network with expertise in remote communications and cloud-based software reporting is an ideal clinical service for coordinating and quarantining a disease.
As the nation takes tentative steps toward reopening, the current goal is to make it as easy as possible for physicians to start seeing patients again, renew lost revenue as quickly as possible and become part of the new era of healthcare as it takes shape.
Telemedicine has been shown to overcome barriers to health services caused by distance between patient and provider, access to reliable transportation, fragmentation of care due to gaps in time between appointments and lack of available providers. Furthermore, it has had a surprising positive impact on the growth and utilization of electronic medical records.
Access to care — Telemedicine can overcome geographic barriers to healthcare, especially for specialized providers, and is beneficial for patients in medically underserved communities and those in rural geographical locations where clinician shortages exist.
Quality of care delivery — Telemedicine can improve the quality of care for patients with both medical and mental health conditions. A recent study showed that with telemedicine, patients had:
- 38% fewer hospital admissions
- 31% fewer hospital re-admissions
- 63% more likely to spend fewer days in the hospital
- Were more engaged in their healthcare
Reduces healthcare costs — Telemedicine almost always increases efficiency of care delivery, reduces expenses of caring for patients or transporting to another location, and can keep patients out of the hospital.
Enhances traditional medicine – Telemedicine enhances the doctor/patient by supporting—not replacing–traditional care delivery. Telemedicine allows care providers to continue to care for patients in-person care while still providing the flexibility and convenience of seeing patients remotely for follow up visits, check-ups, and education when appropriate or necessary.
Improves patient engagement and satisfaction — Patients appreciate the convenience, flexibility and real-time care they can access whenever they need it.
Improves provider satisfaction–Telemedicine can improve job satisfaction for physicians by making it easier to meet with patients, saving providers time and allowing them to better balance work and family life.
Beyond the pandemic, physicians considering adopting telemedicine should know that it is time and cost effective because it enables them to see patients more quickly and efficiently—even allowing them to take telehealth consults in between office visits. Because physicians can provide care via telemedicine wherever they are located, they are not required to be physically in a clinic, allowing the pool of available physicians to expand. Physicians on vacation, in between shifts or awaiting credentialing can take telemedicine consultations.
Finding the Right Telemedicine Solution
The best telemedicine solutions offer advanced analytics and technology and utilize sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI)-powered software with clinical and telemedicine input to improve outcomes and lower costs. Expanded care platforms can address gaps in care in conjunction with other technology, ranging from wireless devices and wearables to mHealth-enabled electronic healthcare record (EHR) platforms. The best solutions have worldwide capabilities and offer chronic disease management and a network of medical experts with broad and diverse experience.
Look for a solution that also offers expanded access to a specialty physician network and comprehensive telemedicine services as part of a cutting-edge, digital and telehealth technology platform. In addition, all telemedicine services should offer portable medical records that are easily ported and transported. These additional innovative services have been shown to lead to higher quality care, lower costs, correct diagnosis and treatment plan and reduction in unnecessary hospitalizations, readmissions and ER visits.
Laura Carabello is Principal, CPR Strategic Communications and Publisher, www.medicaltraveltoday.com
Michael Gorton, MS, JD, is the founder of Teladoc and a telemedicine thought leader