Did you know that by next year, telehealth is expected to be a $35 billion industry?
The prefix “tele” comes from the Greek “téle,” meaning “far off.” Think telephone, telegram, television – you get the idea. Combine tele with health and you get telehealth, or healthcare transmitted from far off.
Same with telemedicine. The WHO defines telemedicine as ‘healing from a distance.” The terms for telehealth and telemedicine are used interchangeably, but telehealth is actually the broad-based term for all distance health services, including things like provider education and remote home monitoring. Telemedicine is a subset of telehealth, and refers mainly to the treating of patients that are not physically visiting an office.
But what are the benefits of telehealth, and why has there been so much focus of moving healthcare in this direction? A little research uncovered why I think this shift in focus makes perfect sense.
Why would you bank somewhere that has no ATMs, instead having to go to a physical bank anytime you want money? In our fast-paced world of healthcare, this is the equivalent of paper charts! They’re almost obsolete.
Sometimes we can be spoiled with working in the healthcare field. I know when I’m getting a sinus infection, that the only way to get rid of it is with a prednisone burst and a zpack. But of course, in the past, I would have to go to the doctor to get that. Now, I can login to my insurance company’s website and they point me in the direction of someone who can prescribe me. My physician can then simply submit my prescription electronically, and we have a local pharmacy that will even deliver it to me.
Now, let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits (and challenges) that telehealth presents to both providers and patients.
For providers, distance learning saves time and money on travel expenses. Yes, we all love to go to a good work conference, but we can’t go every time something changes. Otherwise, we’d never get any work done.
Providers can also now see patients that aren’t in their geographical area. There will always be patients that will need to have a hands-on, face-to-face visit with a doctor. But by using telehealth for someone with the sniffles, physicians can save more time for the patients with more intensive needs. Plus, making more appointments available for those patients increases their patient satisfaction. Then there are those who live in a rural area, such as myself, who may not have easy access to providers with a specialty. With my first born, he required a pediatric orthopedist to correct his club foot. Sure, we have orthos here, but not someone that specializes in club foot. So, we drove to St. Louis, which was around a two hour drive, every week to get him the care he needed.
Obviously, we can’t talk about the pros without talking about the cons. There are some downsides for both providers and patients.
As with any new technology, some set up and training are required. There will likely also be some costs associated with implementation and training (and you’ll definitely want to make sure you have high speed internet.) Telehealth must also be HIPAA compliant, and eligible locations may need to have a private room just for telehealth services.
Your organization also needs to obey the laws in your state, and if you practice in multiple states, it can be confusing navigating their rules.
And the issue of potential misdiagnosing a patient that is not sitting in right in front of the physician has also been a hot topic.
When we think about leveling our services using the key components, the exam component appears to be lacking. Obviously the provider cannot listen to a heart or lungs when there are no vitals obtained by staff. The provider may be able to see things such as skin lesions and rashes, or perhaps if the patient gets close to the webcam, she can look in their throat and eyes for potential issues. So, you’ll rarely get above an expanded problem focused exam.
There are many patient benefits as well, and most tie in with the same benefits that providers experience. Patients won’t have to travel to the doctor. They’ll have more access to specialists, and when they do need to go to see the doctor, there will be more appointments available. In some instances, you may have less of a copay or coinsurance if you see a provider online.
Not to mention, I personally always hated taking my perfectly healthy newborn into the pediatrician’s, what with the germs galore that can be found around the office.
Clearly, telehealth provides tremendous value for many patients, but not all may be receptive to new technology. An elderly population, for example, may not even have a cell phone or a home computer, or be proficient using them, even if they do. They may remember a time when their doctor came to their house to treat them. They’ll want to be in the office with the provider. They are not the early adopters some of us may be, and therefore not willing to download an app or set up video chat.
Additionally, if a patient has a family practice doctor they’ve been seeing for years, and that provider isn’t practicing via telehealth, they may end up seeing a provider in another state, and won’t have their history with them. And obviously, patients may need to see the provider anyway, if their particular condition cannot be treated via telehealth.
So far, I’ve only scratched the surface on telehealth. But in my upcoming webinar, Foolproof Tips for Billing Telehealth Services, I’ll take a closer look at all things telehealth, including proper billing practices, acceptable HCPCS and CPT codes, state-by-state guidelines on technology that can be used, and regulatory changes you can expect to see in the years ahead.
Hope to see you there!