Telemedicine boosts health care access, efficiency, safety and quality
Most people don’t realize that telemedicine has been improving access to health care and medical information, as well as innovatively changing the communication channel between clinicians and patients for nearly 40 years — mostly in rural and underserved areas. The term, coined in the 1970s and meaning “healing at a distance,” represents the natural evolution of health care in the digital world. It includes such things as patient consultations via video conferencing, transmission of still images, e-health patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, consumer-focused wireless applications, and nursing call centers. Incentives for adopting telemedicine technology continues to accelerate along with the more efficient coordination of health care efforts.
Today, the use of telemedicine programs is integrated into more than half of all U.S. hospitals, as well as into specialty departments, home health agencies, private physician offices as well as consumers’ homes and workplaces. Some people consider telemedicine the only viable tool to make our health care system more efficient and improve the overall quality of care. Without any doubt, it is helping to contain health care costs by facilitating chronic disease management, addressing staffing shortages by providing access to teams of health care professionals, and enabling trauma specialists to consult with doctors in smaller ERs until patients transfer to a major trauma center. In addition, data continues to show telemedicine programs reduce travel times for patients and providers, as well as decrease the length and number of hospital stays.
In this photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, Dr. Alan Shatzel, medical director of the Mercy Telehealth Network, is displayed on the monitor RP-VITA robot at Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael, Calif. The robots enable physicians to have a different bedside presence as they “beam” themselves into hospitals to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
While consulting with a doctor over video conference may not be the office visit most of us are accustom to, numerous studies show that specific care delivered via telemedicine is not only safe and effective but can also increase the safety and effectiveness of care. A recent University of Missouri study of heart failure patients, for example, concludes telemedicine allowed for earlier detection of key warning signs in patients, more timely interventions by providers and fewer hospital readmissions by patients.
Additional research shows that when comparing patients with chronic illnesses receiving care through in-person visits and telemedicine, there are no significant differences between the quality of care indicators — including patients’ self-management, medication use, and satisfaction. Another recent study of 8,000 patients shows no difference in the outcome of care between the virtual appointment and in-person office visit.
As a longtime women’s health care provider, I continue to be a strong advocate for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendation to utilize effective telemedicine programs to enhance and expand the reach and access of medical services for women in rural areas, where shortages of providers often result in women having to travel hours to see a physician. I am also a strong advocate for the integration of telemedicine programs in metropolitan areas to help improve the quality, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of health care. By increasing telemedicine service offerings in cities across the U.S., medical professionals can better triage patient care, reserve limited appointment times for those who need to be seen in person and provide more routine elements of care via telemedicine.
Further, patients having the option to receive specific treatments remotely can save by having “no travel time” to an office setting while receiving care from their doctors anytime and anywhere, using a state-of-the-art user-friendly app. My practice, for example, offers remote visits for frequent, patient-specific health care needs such as birth control counseling and prescriptions, early pregnancy counseling, blood work ordering to triage patients requiring sooner appointments, lab reviews, hormone replacement therapy refills and consults on medical situations like urinary tract/bladder symptoms.
With access, equity, quality, and cost-effectiveness continuing to be the key issues facing health care today, telemedicine technologies are helping both patient and provider meet these challenges in new ways. Still, in its infancy, the field of telemedicine will continue to grow, focused on increasing access to care and information with more frequent, patient-centered communication with providers.
Dr. Lizellen La Follette is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist in private practice in Greenbrae. Her “A Woman’s Perspective” column appears every fourth week.