The Slow Growth of Telemedicine

One of the most hoped-for benefits of rural broadband has been the use of telemedicine to conduct routine doctor visits via a broadband connection rather than requiring rural patients to drive to cities for a doctor’s visit. However, the use of telemedicine hasn’t grown as fast as once predicted.

A recent study was published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at telemedicine use from 2005 through 2017. The study gathered records of telemedicine claims that were reimbursed through insurance. In 2005 there were only 206 telemedicine claims. By 2017 that had grown to 202,000 – but that is still only a tiny fraction of total medical visits. When looked at statistically it’s an annual growth rate of over 50% annually, but the overall number of visits are still a tiny blip in the industry.

The analysis showed that 53% of telemedicine visits were for mental health treatment, followed by 39% of telemedicine visits with a primary care physician. The average age of a telemedicine patient was 38. As expected, 83% live n rural areas, although telemedicine is also valuable for patients in cities with limited mobility.

The use of telemedicine has been bolstered by having 32 states pass laws that require insurance companies to treat telemedicine visits on parity with in-person visits. This provides the ability for Health Delivery Organizations (HDOs) like hospitals and clinics to treat patients remotely if the choose to do so.

I don’t want to sound negative because there is also good news in the study statistics. Most of the growth in telemedicine visits have occurred in just the last few years. A recent study was done by Vidyo, a company that provides the telemedicine equipment for hospitals and clinics. Vidyo surveyed 300 HDO organizations and asked about their telemedicine plans. Vidyo reported the following:

  • 75% of HDOs are now using or planning to soon use telemedicine.
  • Of the HDOs already using telemedicine, 47% report a savings for the medical practice; 51% report improved efficiency for the HDO; 58% report that doctors are satisfied with the results from telemedicine; 67% say that telemedicine is easy for staff to use, and 67% say that patients are receptive to telemedicine.
  • HBOs report the primary benefits of telemedicine as: patients get to ask questions which stops little problems into becoming big ones; telemedicine lets patients build a bond with a doctor; cellular video provides the ability for patients to get access to healthcare from anywhere; and video connections allows for collaboration among multiple doctors for complex health issues.
  • One of the holdups of telemedicine deployment has been the need for HDOs to invest in new technology. There are a number of practices waiting to see more proof of the benefits of telemedicine before implementing.

I’m sure that one of the hold-ups for more deployment of telemedicine is that that a lot of rural places don’t yet have the broadband to support it. Telemedicine requires a 2-way video conference, like Skype. It also often requires a good broadband connection for ongoing 24/7 monitoring of devices for outpatients from surgery or other procedures. Homes without a good broadband connection cannot participate in telemedicine. There are rural health clinics that initiate telemedicine visits from their site to specialists in nearby cities – but this still requires the patient to travel.

It looks like telemedicine is poised for rapid growth. This has taken longer to get going than what I would have guessed when looking at the discussion of telemedicine a decade ago. But like many industries it’s taken a while for the technology to get perfected and for doctors to trust using it. Now that many HDOs are starting to  use telemedicine it looks like we are finally poised for gigantic growth of the practice.

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  1. Pingback: Growing Interest in Telehealth?  Problem who pays for it? – Rural Economy Technology

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