What's fueling the healthcare industry's interest in telemedicine? Better mobile technologies and more mature electronic health records (EHRs) and clinical decision support (CDS) systems lead the list. Also, as the baby boomer generation ages, medical expert shortages arise in many specialties.
This interest in telemedicine, which Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, defines as "the delivery of any healthcare service or transmission of wellness information using telecommunications technology," has the potential to transform the way medical care is provided in many areas of the country. The term "telehealth," on the other hand, is often used interchangeably with telemedicine, but doesn't necessarily involve clinical services. It can include patient education or mobile health apps that engage patients in their care, for instance.
Telemedicine isn't a separate medical specialty, but can be deployed by a variety of medical providers and specialties. For instance, dermatology and radiology are medical specialties that tap into telemedicine technologies, including digital imaging and high-bandwidth communication, to remotely view patient medical images--such as photos of skin lesions or CT scans--for diagnosis and treatment recommendations.
Telemed technology can also be used to monitor patients with chronic conditions, enhance nursing call centers, and provide remote consultations for patients in rural areas or off-hours.
While Medicare has been slower to change reimbursement policies to accommodate telemedicine care, private insurers and state Medicaid payers have been more progressive in covering many services, and that's pushing more doctors and hospitals to provide them, said Linkous in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
When it comes to monitoring patients with chronic conditions, mobile and home-based devices that connect via the Web to clinicians increase the likelihood that patients experiencing problems will be spotted early. Clinical systems that remotely collect patient readings can generate alerts to physicians or nurse case managers indicating that prompt intervention is needed to prevent complications or a serious emergency situation from developing. These could range from a diabetic patient with irregular glucose readings or sudden weight gain in a heart failure patient, for example.
The National Institute of Health reports that 25.8 million Americans--more than 8% of the U.S. population--have diabetes. So, telehealth applications, such as the one being planned by diabetes care leader Joslin Diabetes Center and telemedicine tech provider American Well, have a large potential audience of patients who may become users.