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Telemedicine Growing Among Employers, Individuals

A recent report in Information Week reveals that more employers – and employees – than ever before are taking advantage of convenient, cost-effective telemedicine technology in a variety of settings. As Alison Diana’s article triumphantly states, “[t]elemedicine is reshaping the healthcare industry, giving employers an additional (and less expensive) way to provide care and disrupting roles that have lasted centuries.”

How Widespread Is Telemedicine Use?

While it’s important to establish some clear parameters before embracing potentially hyperbolic talk, it’s also clear that telemedicine does appear to be gaining widespread acceptance in a way that hasn’t previously been evident. According to the most recently available statistics, about one in three large employers – firms with more than 1,000 employees – offered telemedicine as a health insurance benefit for their employees. Further, 24 percent of companies that don’t yet offer it expect to do so by the end of 2015. That would raise the total proportion of large firms that offer telemedicine as a health benefit to about 50 percent.

Although large employers are ahead of the curve in this respect, some smaller employers have begun to offer telemedicine as a health benefit as well. This is largely because new models of care have made it more cost-effective for insurers to reimburse telemedicine services at lower volumes. In many cases, these benefits are cost-effective for employees and their dependents too. According to Dr. Allan Khoury, the Towers Watson senior health management consultant who compiled and interpreted much of this data, telemedicine copays are lower than or equivalent to copays for primary care consultations and walk-in clinic visits.

Benefits and Areas of Exploration

Telemedicine is already making life easier, but even more exciting developments may be just around the corner. Dr. Khoury predicts that mobile-friendly telemedicine technology will make it possible for some patients to conduct entire primary care sessions via smartphone. Thanks to highly sensitive microphones that mimic stethoscopes and similar technologies, primary care physicians may be able to evaluate their patients and make preliminary diagnoses without meeting face-to-face. This may be especially useful for busy young people who don’t feel as if they have time for a doctor’s appointment and have no known conditions that would necessitate regular checkups.

More broadly, telemedicine has the potential to be a key component of the transition from fee-based to outcome-based healthcare. As additional research emerges to highlight its cost-effectiveness, hospital systems will have a more compelling reason to utilize it.

Jefferson University Hospitals: A Compelling Case Study

The transformative power of telemedicine is on full display at the Jefferson University Hospitals, a collection of urban and suburban hospitals in the Philadelphia area that operate under the auspices of Thomas Jefferson University. According to Diana, the study will implement a series of bold, telemedicine-focused initiatives during the second half of 2014.

One such initiative is so-called virtual rounds, a concept that allows patients’ family members to be present during the daily assessment of hospitalized patients. Jefferson is also planning to connect family members with patients and their caregivers during the discharge process to ensure that everyone understands the discharge instructions. Moreover, Jefferson stands to be an early adopter of mobile telemedicine technology that facilitates entire consultations via smartphone or tablet.

However, Jefferson’s most ambitious telemedicine initiative may be the “virtual ER,” an analytical model that helps patients determine whether they genuinely need to visit the emergency room or can receive adequate treatment at a walk-in clinic. Since ER visits are far more expensive than walk-ins or primary care consultations, this has the potential to offer tremendous savings for hospital systems that adopt it. By facilitating consultations with patients who aren’t sure whether they need to visit the ER, telemedicine would play a key role.

Even as more companies add telemedicine as a key health benefit, health systems around the country are experimenting with next-generation systems that promise to streamline the delivery of care even further. Within a few years, the interaction between doctors and patients could be much different – and much better for everyone involved.

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