John Locke Update / Research Brief

Telemedicine Working Faster Than The Government To Improve Health Care Access

posted on in Health Care, Health Care & Human Services
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This week, the Senate failed to get the 50 votes necessary to pass part one of the GOP’s three-pronged strategy to reform the U.S. health insurance system. The push isn’t necessarily over yet, but the struggle is real.

While the Congressional GOP has good intentions of restoring more health freedom to the states, the situation at hand serves as a reminder that, often, the market works more efficiently than the government does to improve health care access.

Take telemedicine, for example. This multi-billion dollar industry is a leading example of innovation in the health care arena. Defined as “the use of technology to deliver health care, health information, or health education at a distance,” telemedicine helps patients connect faster to their primary, specialty, and tertiary medical needs. More patients are engaging in two-way virtual encounters with medical providers when seeking a diagnoses or treatment for minor ailments. Other asynchronous portals allow patients to submit questions about non-urgent health issues in which a provider will respond within a given time frame. People can undergo eye exams online that are just as accurate as an in-person optometrist appointment. Renowned Centers of Excellence are partnering with rural hospitals to remotely monitor their intensive care units (ICUs).

The telemedicine industry has already proven to fill in some of the pervasive gaps in health care, such as such as the ongoing rural health provider shortage. According to the Health Resources and Services Association (HRSA), 20 percent of Americans reside in rural areas, while just 11 percent of the nation’s physicians practice rural medicine. North Carolina alone has documented 145 primary care shortage areas across the state.

That’s when mobile telemedicine apps like Teladoc come into play. For just $40, a patient can engage in a virtual office visit with a licensed physician either by phone or video in a matter of 10 minutes. Patients can also schedule appointments in advance for various health issues they may be experiencing; cold and flu, sinusitis, pink eye, bronchitis, allergies, among others. Considering that 70 percent of physician visits can be delivered over a phone call, Teladoc maintains a 95 percent patient satisfaction rate and has been able to resolve 92 percent of patient encounters.

RelyMD is another leading telemedicine modality in which patients can seek medical guidance or treatment in the comfort of their own homes. Founded by an independent emergency physician group in North Carolina, RelyMD physicians offer 24/7 access to their users in exchange for a $50 fee. It’s critical to mention that cost savings also comes with telemedicine’s convenience factor. Because of apps like RelyMD and Teladoc, physicians can steer patients away from unnecessary emergency room visits. Employers who offer this service to their employees can also reap in health care claims savings and enjoy greater workforce productivity. Nursing homes that use RelyMD with their residents have also been able to avoid expensive hospital readmissions.

Insurance companies and other payers have embraced telemedicine beginning in the mid-1990s. For many years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina has offered plans that cover telemedicine for psychiatric care, psychotherapy, health behavior assessments, and diabetic counseling. More recently, UnitedHealthcare members can choose from multiple service providers to engage in virtual office visits.

But even if insurance companies don’t cover certain telemedicine services in their insurance packages, the telemedicine industry is demonstrating that health care can be relatively inexpensive to administer when technology, price transparency, and instant gratification can flourish in a competitive marketplace. Patients want more of this, stat.

Katherine Restrepo is the Director of Health Care Policy at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, she interned at the Cato Institute under the direction of Michael Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies. … ...

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