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September 19, 2016

Telemedicine, still not as normal as sliced bread

Telemedicine is nothing new. In fact, it has been around for several decades already. So why, Penn Medicine associate CIO John Donohue asks himself, is the practice not yet as common as say, sliced bread is?

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To be fair, Donohue remarks,  the practice is growing, just not as fast as some would expect or even demand. But there are reasons fort hat. Technological reasons for one. Even though delivering healthcare to remote locations is hardly a new concept, it was not easy nor cheap until the advent of the mobile device and fast internet connections. 

Technology advances in both healthcare and telecommunications have resulted in significant strides and evolving ways to deliver care. It’s clear that effectively harnessing the full breadth and depth of telemedicine’s capabilities, in fact, can now  impact healthcare for millions of people, especially those in more remote communities and regions. Estimates suggest that 15 million Americans received remote medical care last year and this number will increase significantly over the next few years.

Drivers for growth

There are several drivers for the growth of telemedicine in the past few years, not just technological ones. Convenience is certainly an important driver. The ability for a patient to avoid having to drive to the doctor’s office and spend time in the waiting room is another real benefit.  ‘Also, with an effective telemedicine program, an organization can extend its reach to a much broader area and provide access to care to those that might normally be limited in terms of options,’

However,  some notable technological advancements have facilitaded the advance of telemedicine. Broadband and internet access is more common than ever before. Improvements in wearable devices and portable diagnostic technologies have made it possible to do more from the patient’s home. Lastly, smartphones and associated mobile applications have become available to almost everyone in this country.

Of course, as always, there are challenges and limitations as well. A fistful of these issues prevent us from fully realizing the potential of telemedicine. The largest, of course, is reimbursement. Bending the cost curve in healthcare is going to require the reduced costs typically associated with telemedicine programs. Limited reimbursement in today’s market has been a constraint.  This is improving over time and as the value associated with telemedicine becomes more tangible, the constraint should be less of an issue.

Clinical and legal concerns are also potential issues, but healthcare organizations have been working with the appropriate local, state and federal agencies to develop workable solutions to alleviate these concerns.

Changing reimbursement models

Changing reimbursement models, Donohue believes,  will help drive this increase. Social factors should also influence the growth as people get more comfortable with the technology on both the provider side and the patient side of the transaction.

‘At Penn Medicine, we are active on the telemedicine front,’ Donohue concludes. ‘We have invested in the core technology to have a standardized approach to supporting and delivering telemedicine services.  We have built out a solution to integrate directly into the electronic medical record system for additional benefits such as having the episode be part of the patients record and automated billing. We have a number of telemedicine programs in the works with more in the pipeline.  The standardization of the technology has helped us to make the services more efficient and effective to deliver across our patient base.
 

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