Is Telemedicine Here to Stay?

It’s going to be interesting to see if telemedicine stays after the end of the pandemic. In the past months, telemedicine visits have skyrocketed. During March and April, the billings for telemedicine were almost $4 billion, compared to only $60 million for the same months a year earlier.

As soon as Medicare and other insurance plans agreed to cover telemedicine, a lot of doctors insisted on remote visits during the first few months of the pandemic. In those early months, we didn’t know a lot about the virus and doctor offices were exercising extreme caution about seeing patients. But now, only four months later a lot of doctor’s offices are back to somewhat normal patient volumes, all done using screening patients at the door for temperature and symptoms.

I had two telemedicine visits during April and the experience felt familiar since I was was spending a lot of my day on Zoom meetings that month. These were zoom-like connections using specialized software to protect patient confidentiality, but with a clearly higher resolution camera (and more bandwidth used) at the doctor’s end. I was put on hold waiting for the doctor just as I would have been in the doctor’s office. One of my two sessions dropped in the middle when the doctor’s office experienced a ‘glitch’ in bandwidth. That particular doctor office buys broadband from the local cable incumbent, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were having trouble maintaining multiple simultaneous telemedicine connections. It’s the same problem lots of homes were having during the pandemic when multiple family members have been trying to connect to school and work servers at the same time.

One of my two telemedicine sessions was a little less than fully satisfactory. I got an infected finger from digging in the dirt, something many gardeners get occasionally. The visit would have been easier with a live doctor who could have physically looked at my finger. It was not easy trying to define the degree of the problem to the doctor over a computer connection. The second visit was to talk with a doctor about test results, and during the telemedicine visit I was wondering why all such doctor meetings aren’t done remotely. It seems unnecessary to march patients through waiting rooms with sick patents to just have a chat with a doctor.

There was a recent article about the topic in Forbes that postulates that the future of telemedicine will be determined by a combination of the acceptance by doctors and insurance companies. Many doctors have now had a taste of the technology. The doctors that saw me said that the technology was so new to them at the time that they hadn’t yet formed an opinion of the experience. It also seems likely that the telemedicine platforms in place now will get a lot of feedback from doctors and will improve in the next round of software upgrades.

The recent experience is also going to lead a lot of doctor’s offices to look harder at their broadband provider. Like most of us, a doctor’s office historically relied a lot more on download speed than upload speed. I think many doctor’s offices are going to find themselves unhappy with cable modem service or DSL broadband that has been satisfactory in the past. Doctor’s will join the chorus of those advocating for faster broadband speeds – particularly upload speeds.

Telemedicine also means a change for patients. In the two sessions, the doctor wanted to know my basic metrics – blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen levels. It so happens that we already had the devices t home needed to answer those questions, but I have to think that most households do not.

I don’t think anybody is in a position to predict how insurance companies will deal with telemedicine. Most of them now allow it and some have already expanded the use of telemedicine visits through the end of the year. The Forbes articles suggest that insurance companies might want to compensate doctors at a lower rate for telemedicine visits, and if so, that’s probably not a good sign for doctor’s continuing the practice.

My prediction is that telemedicine visits will not stay at the current high level, but that they will be here to stay. I think when somebody books a visit to a doctor that they’ll be given a telemedicine option when the reason for the visit doesn’t require an examination. The big issue that will continue to arise is the number of homes without adequate bandwidth to hold a telemedicine session. We know there are millions of people in rural America who can’t make and maintain a secure connection for this purpose. There are likely equal millions in cities that either don’t have a home computer or a home broadband connection. And there will be many homes with so-so broadband that will have trouble maintaining a telemedicine connection. Telemedicine is going to lay bare all of our broadband shortcomings.

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