The Virtual Doctor is in: Telemedicine in Healthcare

The Virtual Doctor is in: Telemedicine in Healthcare

Telemedicine is not a new concept, but after years of trial and error, it is certainly here to stay. Because everyone has a smartphone and an internet connection these days, healthcare providers are using telemedicine more and more, transforming health care as we know it. More than 15 million Americans received remote medical care in 2015, and numbers are expected to grow by 30% this year. Whether via email, webcam, or phone, doctors can connect with patients instantly. And in locations where medical care is hard to come by, telemedicine is the hero.

For instance, Doctors without Borders relays questions from physicians in Niger, South Sudan and beyond about medical cases to an expansive network of 280 experts throughout the world – up to 10 times a day. Mercy health system’s new Virtual Care Center outside of St. Louis provides remote support for ICUs and emergency rooms in around 40 hospitals from North Carolina to Oklahoma who don’t have a full-time physician on site. Critical care doctors sit at video monitors that collect data on ICU patients in other locations; two-way cameras allow for close monitoring if a patient needs attention.

And telemedicine is proving to be successful. ICUs monitored by Mercy’s Virtual Care Center have seen 30% fewer deaths and a similar percentage decrease in patients’ length of stay. President of Mercy Virtual, Randy Moore, noted this as 1,000 people who were expected to die who were instead saved by telemedicine.

The most popular, and fastest-growing, forms of telemedicine involve consumers and clinicians having one-time phone, video, or email visits. These are usually related to small issues like colds, skin rashes, or flu and can cost around $45.

As successful as it is, telemedicine isn’t as ubiquitous as you’d think. 1,500 family physicians were polled – only 15% have used telemedicine in their practices, although 90% said they would use it if covered by insurance. 39% of tech-savvy patients have not heard of telemedicine, and of those that have used it, almost half preferred in-person doctor visits.

Rules around telemedicine vary from state to state, and are constantly evolving. There’s some debate to what services physicians should be paid for in relation to insurance coverage. Many health plans now offer telemedicine services and are promoting them for their convenience; large employers are offering virtual doctor visits as employee benefits.

Teladoc, Doctor on Demand, and American Well are three web companies that host virtual doctors – all are expected to grow by 20% this year.

Telemedicine is certainly shaking up traditional doctor/patient relationships, and we’re sure to see more telemedicine programs come to fruition this year.