By now you’re used to video chatting with family overseas, scheduling hair appointments online, purchasing concert tickets with your smart phone and more. Technology has dramatically broadened the scope of consumer expectations, communications and capabilities. Health care is keeping pace by bolstering telemedicine, with health systems and providers across the country and around the globe adding online appointment scheduling, video doctor visits and more to their service rosters. The move is changing the face of health care, making it more accessible, mobile and – ultimately – affordable.
Technically speaking, telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communication to improve a patient’s clinical health status, according to the American Telemedicine Association. The field is a growing one that includes two-way video, email, smart phones, wireless tools and other forms of telecommunications technology.
Telemedicine was first used more than 40 years ago to extend hospital care to patients in remote areas, according to the ATA. Today, telemedicine is rapidly being integrated into health care operations from hospitals and specialty departments to home health agencies, private physician offices and consumers’ homes and workplaces.
Who’s doing it, and what are we saving?
Telemedicine could save U.S. employers approximately $6 billion annually in health care costs, according to global professional services firm Towers Watson. “Achieving this savings requires a shift in patient and physician mindsets, health plan willingness to integrate and reimburse such services, and regulatory support in all states,” explained Dr. Allan Khoury, a Towers Watson senior consultant, in a statement.
A Towers Watson survey of employers at companies with 1,000 employees or more found that as of August 2014, 22 percent currently offer telemedicine consultations as a cost-saving alternative to emergency room or primary care visits. An additional 37 percent – a 68 percent increase – plan to offer those services by 2015.
“Telemedicine is the wave of the medical future. Its use will only increase as patients, providers and insurance companies support telemedicine. Virtual care is less expensive than traditional medical delivery and remarkably convenient for patients and providers.” said. Dr. R. Henry Capps, Novant Health chief medical information officer.
Telemedicine has become a significant strategic investment for Novant Health, a four-state integrated health network of physician clinics, outpatient centers and hospitals that is headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Provider-to-provider telemedicine has existed for a long time but the extension to the patient is the exciting new frontier. ,” Capps explained. “We’ve added MyChart, a free online tool, also accessible via mobile app that allows patients to schedule appointments; securely send emails and photos to physicians; view and update their medical records. We also have live, secure video chats and e-visits available for patients with their providers. ”
He added, “We’re really dedicated to providing quality care to our patients in a fashion that works for them, whether that’s in our physician offices, on the phone or electronically.”
Use on the rise
Availability doesn’t mean everyone is using the services just yet, though. The Towers Watson survey showed use rates currently less than 10 percent, despite analysis showing that 1 in 7 primary care office visits could be addressed through some form of telemedicine.
Capps’s numbers are more encouraging and engaged. As of June 25, 2014, the Novant Health MyChart system had more than 375,000 registered users, and was averaging 4,000 online appointments and nearly 56,000 patient emails on a monthly basis.
“Not every patient will opt to use this technology, but those who choose to will have an additional channel to connect with their health,” he said.
That channel is often driven by convenience, as Dr. Capps’s patients recently discovered.
They realized the night before their son was starting kindergarten that they didn’t have his immunization records printed. They were able to log in to MyChart online and print them out without having to wait for his physician office to open the next morning.
MyChart saves Disney trip
Capps isn’t alone. Winston-Salem mom, Shannon Nevergall, used Novant Health’s MyChart to get help for her sick son while on vacation at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. “My 4-year-old son, Noah, started complaining of ear pain,” she explained. “We were 600 miles away from our pediatrician.”
Before locating an urgent care facility, Nevergall gave Noah a dose of Tylenol and sent Noah’s pediatrician, Dr. Dudley Bell of Robinhood Pediatrics, a message through the MyChart system. Bell responded quickly, calling in an antibiotic to a nearby pharmacy.
“It was wonderful,” Nevergall said. “I didn’t have to expose my son to a stranger, and I had peace of mind knowing that the care I was receiving was from our trusted pediatrician. We were able to enjoy our vacation.”