Time To Treat Telemedicine as Just “Medicine”

Posted on October 25, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Over the last year or two, hospitals and clinics have shown a steadily growing interest in offering telemedicine services. Certainly, this is in part due to the fact that health plans are beginning to pay for telehealth consults, offering a new revenue stream that providers want to capture, but there’s more to consider here.

Until recently, much of the discussion around telehealth centered on how to get health insurance companies to pay for it. But now, as value-based purchasing becomes more the norm, providers will need to look at telemedicine as a key tool for managing patient health more effectively.

Evidence increasingly suggests that making providers available via telemedicine channels can help better manage chronic conditions and avert needless hospitalizations, both of which, under value-based payments, are more important than getting a few extra dollars for a consult.

Looked at another way, the days of telehealth being a boutique service for more-sophisticated consumers are ending. “It’s time to treat telemedicine as just ‘medicine,’” one physician consultant told me. “It’s no different than any other form of medicine.”

As reasons for treating telehealth as a core clinical service increase, barriers to sharing video and other telemedical records are falling, the consultant says. Telemedicine providers can already push the content of a video visit or other telehealth consult into an EMR using HL7, and soon information sharing should go both ways, he notes.

What’s more, breaking down another wall, major EMR vendors are offering providers the ability to conduct a telehealth visit using their platform. For example, Epic is offering telemedicine services to providers via its MyChart portal and Hyperspace platform, in collaboration with telehealth video provider Vidyo. Cerner, which operates some tele-ICUs, has gone even further, with senior exec John Glaser recently arguing that telehealth needs to be a central part of its population health strategy.

Admittedly, even if providers develop a high level of comfort delivering care through telehealth platforms, it’s probably too soon to rely on this medium as an agent of change. If nothing else, the industry must face up to the fact that telemedicine demand isn’t huge among their patients at present, though consumer plays like AmWell and DoctoronDemand are building awareness.

Also, while scheduling and conducting telemedicine consults need not be profoundly different than holding a face-to-face visit — other than offering both patient and doctor more flexibility — working in time to manage and document these cases can still pose a workflow challenge. Practical issues such as how, physically, a doctor documents a telehealth visit while staring at the screen must be resolved, issues of scheduling addressed and even questions of how to store and retrieve such visit records must be thought through.

However, I think it’s fair to say that we’re past wondering whether telemedicine should be part of the healthcare process, and whether it makes financial sense for hospitals and clinics to offer it. Now we just have to figure out where and when.