There was a recent article in JAMA Network Open, part of the monthly journals of the American Medical Association, that reported on a large study to quantify the benefits of using telemedicine with cancer patients. The study was conducted at National Cancer Institute – Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Florida from April 2020 through June 2021.
The study wanted to quantify the cost savings for patents that were able to conduct visits via telehealth rather than drive to the cancer center. This is a particularly interesting study because one of the most important claimed benefits of telemedicine is the ability to see specialists who don’t reside in a local community or a rural area. The savings from seeing a doctor by telemedicine includes patient savings for travel and lost productive work time.
The study was launched after it came clear that the number of telemedicine visits increased after the beginning of the pandemic. The Cancer Institute started encouraging telemedicine visits starting in April 2020, soon after the onset of the pandemic. Protecting cancer patients from Covid was a major concern at the time.
The study looked at 25,496 telehealth visits made by 11,688 patients. The median age was 55 with 46% of the patents younger than 65. 61% of the patients were women.
The savings for patients to use telemedicine was significant. The average patient drove 148.6 round trip miles per visit. It was estimated that eliminating the drive to and from the Center eliminated almost 3.8 million miles of driving. There was also a significant savings in lost time. Patients with a job, or those driving a patient to the Cancer Center lost a lot of time for the round-trip visit. Lost time was calculated in two components – the driving time and the extra time at the Cancer Center waiting to see a doctor.
The total savings per visit was significant. The average savings for vehicle costs ranged $80 to $176 depending upon the make and model of the vehicle. The total savings for a visit averaged between $141 and $223 per visit. That’s a significant savings for a patient to see a doctor since a cancer patient typically sees a doctor multiple times during the course of cancer treatment.
This study did not try to calculate the savings for the caregivers of cancer patients. Caregivers for cancer patients spend substantial time coordinating appointments. 18% of the caregivers in the study expressed high financial stress related to the cancer.
One of the points made in the study was that these savings were not available to all patients due to the digital divide. Rural patients, or those without broadband were unable to participate in the telemedicine visits.
The study notes that the savings per visit are higher in this case since patients are likelier to travel to see a specialist – the savings would not be as large for seeing local doctors.