Healthcare in the United States is often compromised by fragmentation in its delivery, limited patient access due to a shortage of primary care doctors, long wait times (even for patients who have appointments), and spiraling costs.1 As a result, innovative approaches to delivering healthcare are becoming increasingly important in America’s continued pursuit of improved outcomes and reduced cost of care.
Healthcare delivery models such as telemedicine aim to address the long wait times and high administrative costs associated with traditional care and offer important insights for improving the healthcare process.
By definition, telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.2 Although telemedicine is rapidly expanding, it is a concept that has existed for more than half a century. At its basic level, telemedicine is a physician talking on the phone to a patient or another physician. Today, the term telemedicine includes remote physician consultations through channels such as texting, video, e-mail, and other wireless tools.2 Ultimately, the goal is to connect a physician with a patient to provide a diagnosis and recommend treatment options.
The U.S. population is getting older and more patients are dealing with chronic conditions. The result is an increasing demand for care. Unfortunately, communities across the country are simultaneously experiencing physician shortages. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will face a shortage of more than 130,600 physicians by 2025.3 The use of telemedicine has the potential to provide some relief from this shortage, which is expected to be equally distributed among primary care and medical specialties such as general surgery, cardiology, and oncology.
Telemedicine can be a cost-effective way to monitor patients, promote better health habits, and provide patients with access to healthcare professionals beyond the walls of their local hospitals and health practices. Telemedicine can help with urgent requests to see a physician as well as more routine follow-up appointments and visits specifically for prescription refills.
Although telemedicine has a lot to offer America’s health system, physicians must carefully consider when to incorporate it into the continuum of care. According to The Doctors Company, the nation’s largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer, the following are some potential risks providers should be aware of:
Managing the social aspects of telemedicine can be challenging, but telemedicine has the potential to support a stressed delivery system by increasing patient access to care, improving outcomes, and reducing healthcare costs.
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.