As cardiac disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses rise worldwide, and as the population ages and the U.S. faces a predicted physician shortage, many health systems and health plans have embraced telemedicine as an option to grow their markets and continue care to patients remotely.
A study on health insurance claims from across the country found that between 2016 and 2017 telehealth claims increased by 53%—more than both urgent care centers (14%) and retails clinics (7%) combined.
“From a business perspective, if I can keep you healthier and more compliant with your physician recommendations, hopefully your health outcomes are going to be more positive. That means where we can potentially reduce readmission disease exacerbations and emergency room visits,” says Marya Vande-Doyle, director of workplace wellness and telemedicine for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS). The health plan recently reported that nearly 15,000 telemedicine claims were filed in 2018. “We see telemedicine as a way to ensure that members feel like they have access to care wherever they go.”
Combined with market factors, CMS also accepted five new reimbursement codes in 2019 allowing for providers to be paid for remote patient monitoring, e-visits, and e-consults.
But even with a ripe market and more CMS support, experts believe that healthcare organizations still have a long way to go before telemedicine and e-visits are commonplace. Zynn says state regulations can still be a hurdle to telehealth adoption.
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“If you asked anybody in the industry, they would say licensing and changes in the regulations at the state level are probably the biggest hurdle or hindrance to faster growth,” says David Zynn, president of Infectious Disease (ID) Connect, a telemedicine company recently spun off from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).
Currently, 29 states are a part of the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which provides streamlined licensure for physicians who offer telemedicine services through multiple states.
“In the next five years, we'll lose the term ‘tele’ because it will just be healthcare,” says Zynn. You will make an appointment to see your doctor and either go to the hospital or get that service via telemedicine. You will also get follow ups via telemedicine. So, it’s more efficient, more effective, and better for the patient.”
Using telehealth to expand specialists’ reach
UPMC saw telehealth as an opportunity to offer its expertise in infectious disease to communities across the country. The hospital launched a telemedicine company, ID Connect, to help other hospitals improve outcomes and reduce transfers for patients who need infectious disease treatment.
Currently, the program is being used by several other hospitals and outpatient clinics, with plans to expand in the upcoming months. A shortage of physicians who specialize in infectious disease, coupled with the constantly-evolving nature of the field were other catalysts to UPMC’s decision to create a technology company focused on providing services more broadly.