With the recent devastation brought on by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Telemedicine has been in the spotlight playing a big role in delivering medical care to victims trapped in homes and shelters. In a fortuitous twist of fate, earlier this year Texas became the last of the 50 states to abolish the requirement that patient-physician relationships be established with an in-person visit before telemedicine can be used.
Telemedicine has many advantages for both patient and provider including ease and convenience, increased access, fewer missed appointments and expanded care coverage. Patients are getting much of their healthcare information on-demand and as a result, are increasingly requesting more convenient access to their healthcare providers. Patients want the ease and convenience of communicating with their physician via email or through virtual visits. With the use of a computer, webcam and broadband internet access, companies like MDLive and Doctor On Demand provide virtual treatment for things like infections, skin and eye issues, sprains and bruises, back pain, vomiting and diarrhea, colds, coughs, and congestion and most other common medical issues seen in the ER.
In Alabama, telemedicine got a big boost in December of 2016 when the state’s largest insurance provider, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, announced it would provide coverage for telemedicine services like outpatient cardiology, behavioral health, dermatology, infectious diseases and neurology. The hope is, this decision to provide coverage will boost the use of telemedicine in small and rural communities where access to specialty care is limited. For example, Medical Center Barbour in Eufaula, Alabama is using TeleStroke technology to diagnose stroke patients via a neurologist based in Atlanta without risking the critical 3-hour transport time to a regional medical facility.
Another important benefit of Telemedicine in Alabama, particularly with all psychiatric hospitals in the state closing in 2015 except those in Tuscaloosa, is the ability to address behavioral and mental health issues using virtual technology. Studies show that patients dealing with depression have better success rates with telemedicine vs. in-person counseling. Virtual appointments are more successful in treating mental health and behavioral issues because patients are less likely to miss an appointment. Patients who are homebound or have trouble coordinating childcare are more likely to keep regular therapy sessions with the convenience of virtual access.
Telemedicine improves clinical workflows by allowing healthcare providers to quickly assess the reason for the call or visit, prioritize care and deploy additional resources if needed. While telemedicine is not a fix-all to the comprehensive challenges surrounding healthcare, it does help bridge the gap and improve treatment numbers by removing barriers to things like transportation, location and convenience.