With the increasing pinch of health insurance capitation and fee limits on patient care, telemedicine is becoming an essential tool for cost containment and efficiently expanding patient access in medicine. The American Telemedicine Association predicts “an exponential growth in the adoption of telemedicine” now that 73 million Americans use fee-capped managed health insurance.
Telemedicine cuts costs by eliminating the expense of travel for rural patients and limiting the need for hospitalization. “Like everything else in today’s world, technology and its ability to provide real-time data is driving the expanse of telemedicine” explains Branden Robinson, an executive at InSight Telepsychiatry, a national leader in telepsychiatry. “If you can make a decision about a patient within 15 minutes of them walking into your hospital that saves them from hospitalization or further complications—it has huge health and financial benefits.”
While the popular perception may be that telemedicine is primarily used by doctors to consult with rural patients via video conferencing, in reality, medical leaders employ many real-time technologies, and we’ll review the most important ones:
1. Video Conferencing
Video conferencing serves multiple functions in telemedicine, and serves as a hub for the delivery of multiple services. Patients can consult with physicians in real-time, general practitioners seek diagnostic assistance from specialists, and rural residents connect with urban health centers.
HD video conferencing systems provide high quality images necessary for diagnostic consults, and systems can transmit data securely through the use of encryption, complying with HIPPA regulations. Within a hospital setting, video units save money by serving different needs within an office, such as telepsychiatry, telestroke and teledermatology.
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2. Image Transmission
Transmitting diagnostic images, like X-rays, to specialists is an essential facet of telemedicine. Doctors and specialists may review these images later, offline, through the “store-and-forward” format of telemedicine. Often, however, these transmissions coincide with the use of video conferencing and provide real-time feedback. Robinson notes that many video units are equipped with “numerous peripherals to capture relevant data.”
3. Remote Monitoring
Health care professionals keep tabs on patients at home through remote monitoring. Monitoring systems use the Internet or simple phone lines to report a patient’s vitals and status to health centers. Commonly, remote monitoring checks the progress of stroke, heart attack, and pregnant patients.
Sixty-eight percent of patients, reports the American Telemedicine Association, “are interested in remote monitoring devices that allow self-monitoring of their condition and electronic reporting of results to their physician.” Both convenience and cost motivate this trend.
4. Patient Portals
E-health patient portals belong to the broader category of telehealth. Patient portals include websites that not only provide direct care, but also include websites offering patient data collection and management, discussion boards, forums, and patient-to-patient support.
5. Telenursing: Nursing Call Centers
Our aging population increases the demand for access to nurses. Telenursing strives to better allocate nursing care. Call centers provide 24-hour access to nursing staff. Nurses answer medical questions over the phone and contact emergency services as needed. Telenursing provides an alternative to in-home and residential care for the chronically ill and elderly.
Cost Saving and Patient Outcomes
Telemedicine technology continues to pioneer new savings and innovation in health care. Robinson points out that telemedicine technology “Cuts down on…spending when paying for travel or hospitalizations, [and] cuts down on insurance costs by treating diseases sooner, before hospitalization is needed.”
Several studies highlight not only the cost benefit of telemedicine, but also better patient outcomes. According to The Boston Globe, complications and mortality rates in the ICU at UMass Memorial Medical Center dropped when remote monitoring was added by an eICU. And in the mental health field, Robinson points to a study by the VA that shows veterans using telepsychiatry are less likely to need hospitalization.