As the potential -- if not the actual success, yet -- of AI grows in healthcare, telemedicine stands to benefit from it. It's not hard to imagine telemedicine chatbots being the initial party that a patient discusses symptoms with during a smartphone video call, and based on AI deductions of the situation, recommendations could follow or an actual physician could join the discussion.
Billions of investment dollars have been poured into apps and websites that offer this virtual consultations with physicians, ranging from Doctor on Demand to American Well. The theory behind them is that millennials would opt for a digital alternative to an in-person physician's visit, if the option were available. And patients in remote, rural areas who are miles away from the nearest doctor would have few alternatives.
Telehealth, the use of electronic communication to remotely provide health care information and services, is gaining more and more attention as providers, patients, and payers all seek more effective and cost-efficient ways to deliver care. Physical therapy is no exception, and while those services have developed mostly in rural areas to accommodate the long distances between patients and providers, telehealth in physical therapy is being considered in other geographic and clinical settings.
While telemedicine is the older of the two phrases, telehealth is rapidly gaining acceptance, in large part because of the evolution of the healthcare landscape. The rise of consumer-directed healthcare and the shift from fee-based care to quality- and outcomes-based care has put more of an emphasis on health and wellness and care management. And in that atmosphere, telehealth fits the mold.
Teladoc Health enjoys a killer advantage with its head start in telehealth. Around 40% of the largest companies in the world contract with Teladoc to provide virtual healthcare services to their employees. Over 35 of the biggest health plans in the U.S. have partnered with Teladoc. More than 290 hospitals and health systems have teamed up with the telehealth leader.
All the numbers point to the exponential growth of telemedicine – in other words, it’s not going anywhere. The global telemedicine market was worth $17.8 billion in 2014, and is projected to grow well beyond that by 2020. ATA President Dr. Reed Tuckson estimated that approximately 800,000 virtual consultations will take place in the U.S. in 2015. And health systems, doctors, legislators, and patients are fueling that upward trend. A recent survey found an incredible90% of healthcare executives were in the process of developing or implementing a telemedicine program, and 84% said these program were important. IHS projected the number of patients using telemedicine will rise from roughly 350,000 in 2013 to 7 million by 2018. And with this high demand for telemedicine, legislators are scrambling to pass bills that offer both support and needed regulations; in August 2015, Congress had 26 telemedicine-related bills waiting for decision.
Although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 governs telemedicine in certain situations under Medicare, telemedicine regulation for the most part falls to the states. As of spring 2018, 49 states and Washington, D.C., provide reimbursement via Medicaid for some version of live video care, according to the Center for Connected Health Policy, a group that promotes telemedicine.
Telemedicine companies that are consumer-facing offer the huge benefit of on-demand care for patients. A sick patient can simply login online and request a visit with one of the company’s doctors and get treatment. But this model, similar to the retail health movement, leads to a breakdown in care continuity. A random doctor who doesn’t know the patient, doesn’t know their whole medical history. The best approach to telemedicine? Providing tools to providers to easily connect with their own patients.
In the United States, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research's (NIDRR) supports research and the development of telerehabilitation. NIDRR's grantees include the "Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center" (RERC) at the University of Pittsburgh, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington DC. Other federal funders of research are the Veterans Health Administration, the Health Services Research Administration in the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Defense. Outside the United States, excellent research is conducted in Australia and Europe.
The rate of adoption of telehealth services in any jurisdiction is frequently influenced by factors such as the adequacy and cost of existing conventional health services in meeting patient needs; the policies of governments and/or insurers with respect to coverage and payment for telehealth services; and medical licensing requirements that may inhibit or deter the provision of telehealth second opinions or primary consultations by physicians.
Although telemedicine itself permits physicians to treat patients nationwide, there are restrictions on who can provide services across state lines. States with large rural areas with limited access to care could greatly benefit from this, but varying state regulations make the process challenging. Physicians who do want to practice medicine across states may have to obtain a full medical license in all states. Not only is the process time consuming, but it is also expensive for physicians to do.