Affordable Care Act / Healthcare / Home Health Services / Politics

Is Telemedicine Going to Help Curb Health Care Costs?

Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), everyone has been holding their breath in anticipation of seeing its effects. In an attempt to curb health care costs by diluting the risk pool, the ACA has mandated that individuals get insurance or pay a fine. It is true that millions are more insured due to the ACA, but the real question is whether the ACA has achieved the lowering of health care spending.

Supporters of the ACA have cited the low spending rate as evidence of the ACA’s success. However, the low spending rate may just be evidence of a normal pattern of boom and bust where health care spending grows at the pace of GDP or slower. If this is the case, then providers and administrators need to find alternate ways to curb the increasing health care spending, which is still rising faster than the rate of inflation. Telemedicine might be the answer to cheaper medical care.

Telemedicine refers to real time, two-way electronic audiovisual communications. Improvement in technology has prompted an increased focus on telemedicine. For instance, faster Internet connections as well as higher quality video software facilitate the online chatting experience. Also, mobile devices have allowed people to consult with a doctor wherever they go. In addition, electronic health records allow doctors to access a patient’s records without the patient having to come into the office and fill it out. Finally, patients are comfortable with asynchronous messaging in today’s busy age, and the doctors are also able to be more efficient with their time.

The potential benefits to consumers of telemedicine are numerous. For the elderly, especially those sixty and up, telemedicine will make going to the doctor more possible because the elderly may have mobility issues. It may also provide better access for those who live in rural areas.

While some may be concerned about the quality of care received, the numbers show otherwise. 83 percent of the time, providers were able to resolve the patient’s issues. Patients with common illnesses like sinusitis and cold/flu/pertussis are among those who are successfully diagnosed.

Patients did get the care that they needed, but this is not without a caveat.  For more complex needs, the patient will still have to come into the office. Telemedicine has a promising future, but the range of diagnoses that it can detect should be reserved for the less problematic illnesses.

From the provider side, telemedicine may allow them to use their time more efficiently. More importantly, telemedicine “visits” may cut costs. A study by Dale H. Yamamoto of Red Quill Consulting, Inc. states that the average telehealth visit ranges from $40-$50, while in-person care can cost as much as $176, which equals an average saving of $100 per visit.

With all the benefits that it may bring, it will be a challenge to bring telemedicine to communities that lack access to technology. In rural areas, the Internet connection is subpar, and it may require partnerships with broadband communications companies to lay the foundation for telemedicine. States have yet to adopt policies that will support the rise of telemedicine.

Additionally, the cost of telemedicine might prove as a barrier to implementation because not all telehealth costs are reimbursed. Medicare only reimburses for telehealth services when the originating site—where the patient is—is in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) or in a county that is outside of any Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Additionally, the originating site may not be the patient’s home. Also, the payers have differing reimbursement policies, and in some cases, telemedicine requires pre-approval. In addition to that, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) still doesn’t reimburse for the service in metropolitan areas. Therefore, these regulatory policies present a great barrier to telemedicine if people cannot get their doctor’s visits covered.

Telemedicine may improve a patient’s access to medical care services at a decreased cost. It is convenient for the patients and the providers. The presence of financial and regulatory impediments, however, will make it more difficult to reap the benefits of this cutting-edge medical care. Greater efforts should be made to bring telemedicine to rural communities and people with disabilities. This will only be made possible if this potential cost-saving technology is not steeped in regulation. With too much regulation and inconsistent policies across the country, people might not get the convenient care that they need.