Today’s healthcare system is getting stretched to the limit. Patients are demanding a higher level of attention in a field with a shrinking number of available doctors. The end result is patients waiting longer and longer to see a doctor, and doctors under significant amounts of stress as they try to serve their patients well.
This strain is clearly seen in growing wait times. In a 2017 survey by Merritt Hawkins, the average patient wait time for 15 large metro markets was reported at 24.1 days. In mid-sized metro markets, the wait time was even more at 32 days. These were both up over 30 percent from the previous survey in 2014. Patients have to wait close to a month to see a physician, and often even longer to then see a specialist.
This is just one statistic that shows the strain on the healthcare system as it currently stands. People with urgent medical needs often cannot get in to see the doctor as quickly as they should, and people with more mild needs may take up valuable office time from those who need an in-person appointment. In addition, many rural areas lack appropriate healthcare to serve all of their populations, and those doctors who are in these under-served areas are stretched thin.
Telehealth is providing a solution for both of these concerns. In 2019, a growing number of providers are turning to telehealth solutions to meet the needs of their patients, and this is helping to ease the strain on the healthcare industry while helping patients get access to care more quickly. Here’s a closer look at what telehealth is and the status of telehealth in the United States in 2019.
What Is Telehealth?
Telehealth is the use of technology to connect medical providers with patients without the need for an office appointment. Through apps and video appointments, patients can connect with practitioners to get quick access to healthcare. As long as lab testing is not needed, telehealth services can diagnose simple problems, allow access to prescriptions, and even provide pay-as-you-go access to healthcare.
Progress Seen in Telehealth in 2019
In 2019, the telehealth industry made significant progress in becoming a more mainstream service. Some of the factors driving this growth include:
1. Increased Consumer Demand for Telehealth
This year, more and more patients discovered the option to get medical care in this way, and the demand for this service started to grow. This demand is not new, as a 2017 survey found that 2/3 of healthcare consumers preferred virtual visits simply for the time and cost savings they offer. In fact, the survey reported that 20 percent of consumers would be willing to switch providers if they got the option for virtual visits as a result of making the switch.
2. Increased Government Involvement
Consumer demand was a driving factor for this growth, but involvement from the government was also a factor. In 2019 the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded its reimbursement amounts for remote care services, which it also did in 2018. This coverage included additional help to teach patients how to use these services, so more consumers could become active participants in telehealth services. Because CMS is the largest healthcare payer in the country with around 90 million participants, this represented a sizable chunk of the healthcare market.
Not only that, but the FCC has recently proposed a program to expand telehealth services particularly to under-served populations. The $100 Million Connected Care Pilot Telehealth Program is designed to bring telehealth services to veterans, areas without adequate health care, and low-income patients. Both of these moves show the government’s commitment to helping telehealth grow.
3. Data Management Improvements
Improvement in the data management also helped fuel changes to telehealth in 2019. Large amounts of data are now available to practitioners, and remote patient monitoring platforms are now becoming reality for people with chronic diseases. Now that the cloud is available to help practitioners manage data, patients are able to use telehealth services for things like routine vitals check that otherwise required a trip to the doctor.
4. Lack of Providers in Certain Geographic Areas
Another factor fueling the growth in telehealth is the provider shortage in certain areas. Rural areas, for instance, tend to lack healthcare services, particularly in specialty areas. The best way to get healthcare to these populations is through telehealth.
New Technology Making Telehealth More Accessible
The idea of telehealth is not new, but in 2019 many new technologies became part of the telehealth marketplace, and that led to increased growth. Some examples of these technologies include:
- On-Site Kiosks – On-site kiosks are placed in clinics, community centers, or job sites. They are connected to a physician and offer monitoring of vitals along with a computer interface. This makes it convenient to track data and connect with a doctor when needed.
- Mobile Apps – Using phone-based video, mobile apps make virtual face-to-face appointments with doctors a reality. These apps can also track health data, like vitals and weight, so doctors can keep tabs on the overall health of their patients.
- Online Video Conferencing – When all that is needed is for the doctor to see an injury or evaluate a rash, online video conferencing makes it easy.
- Electronic Health Records with Patient Portals – Patient portals as part of electronic health records programs provide patients with easier access to their medical data. This also allows doctors in telehealth programs to connect with specialists in other parts of the state or country to get help evaluating patient data.
Real-Life Examples of Telehealth
Though it still has room to grow, telehealth is growing, and 2019 caused tremendous growth. One particular telehealth startup, Genneve, successfully raised $4 million in 2019 to start their launch. This startup aims its services at women in menopause, connecting them to practitioners who specialize in menopause care, including OB/GYNs and nurse practitioners. Appointments are offered with pay-as-you-go rates, so women can get fast answers to their medical questions, as well as refills of prescriptions when needed.
In a patient with diabetes, telehealth frees them from many types of appointments. For example, they can use an app connected to their doctor’s office to track food, medications, insulin use, and blood sugar levels. An online patient portal gives the patient access to test results and makes it easier to refill prescriptions or securely email a doctor. Retinal screening can even be done remotely from the main doctor’s office, rather than requiring a costly appointment with the eye specialist. All of this greatly reduces the strain on the diabetic patient while allowing the medical team to better monitor care and overall health.
Rural communities are facing shortages of medical specialists, and many patients do not have the funds or transportation options to travel away from their home communities to seek care. In these settings, telehealth services can connect providers with the specialists their patients may need. Rather than sending a patient to an out-of-town specialist, a doctor can video conference with the specialist to get care locally. In communities that have no doctors at all, telehealth programs can allow patients to get help for mild needs, like viruses and colds, without the need to travel to the doctor’s office.
Potential Pitfalls for Telehealth
Though telehealth made tremendous strides in 2019, there are still some barriers in the medical industry preventing it from becoming mainstream. Some of these include:
- The need for practitioners to completely change their way of working with patients
- More funding needed to set up the technologies
- Training patients to use telehealth services
- Difficulties in controlling prescriptions without in-person exams or doctor/patient relationships
As people continue to demand telehealth services in 2020 and beyond and an increasing number of practitioners start offering these services, these hurdles will need to be addressed.
If you are interested in becoming a leader in the healthcare industry, telehealth is a critical arena to understand. With the right training, you could be in a good position to assist patients and providers as they come on board with the changing telehealth world. Learn more about the Executive Master of Health Administration degree through USC Price.