It can be as simple as a patient’s brief phone call or Skype chat with a clinician about an earache or skin rash. Or as routine as hooking up to a phone and transmitting heart rates, blood pressure and other vital signs to a doctor’s office a little too distant to visit.
Or it could be something as dramatic as Doctors Without Borders relaying tough medical treatment questions about victims of terrorist violence or rare diseases in the Sudan, Iraq and other war-torn regions to a network of 280 experts around the globe.
Not all that long ago, the notion of obtaining medical advice and treatment over the phone, email or video seemed exotic and risky. There were too many confusing questions about state regulations, which services would be covered by Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance, and whether patients were actually receiving quality care.
But as Melinda Beck of The Wall Street Journal wrote on Monday, many of those obstacles and concerns have been surmounted, and the era of the “virtual doctor” is upon us.
“Driven by faster internet connections, ubiquitous smartphones and changing insurance standards, more health providers are turning to electronic communications to do their jobs – and it’s upending the delivery of health care,” Beck wrote.
As the American Telemedicine Association defines it, telemedicine involves the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information often using the most basic of telecommunications technology – including the internet, wireless, satellite feeds and telephone lines.
There are at present roughly 200 “telemedicine networks” with 3,500 service sites operating throughout the United States. More than 15 million Americans annually receive some type of medical care remotely. One of the most common practices is cardiac monitoring – a service currently provided to about one million Americans.
Among the fastest growing services in telemedicine: consumers hooking up electronically with doctors they’ve never met before for quickie, non-emergency consultations for colds, the flu or ear aches.
Those routine on line consultations typically cost about $45. That compares with $100 or more for an in-office visit, $160 for a visit to an urgent-care clinic and $750 or more at a hospital emergency room, according to The Journal.
One wonders how many lives could have been saved if ailing veterans had been able to confer with a doctor by phone – or submitted vital health care data on line – to the Department of Veterans Affairs Phoenix health care centers.
At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, according to reports that first surfaced in 2014. Many of those unfortunate vets had been placed on a secret waiting list for six months or longer because of inadequate medical staffing.
The VA has experimented with telemedicine for a number of years, according to the American Telemedicine Association. The Veterans Health Administration “delivered over 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine” in 2011, according to the trade association.
It’s not clear why that practice wasn’t extended to the vets who died waiting to get into the Phoenix center.
Among other vital statistics about this the surge in use of telemedicine:
- The number of virtual doctor visits in the U.S. climbed from one million in 2015 to 1.2 million this year.
- The share of health care providers that operate telemedicine programs: 72 percent of all hospitals and 52 percent of all physician groups.
- The share of larger employers providing telemedicine benefits: 48 percent in 2015 but 74 percent in 2016.
Read more about the mushrooming of telemedicine here.