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.
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Telehealth is defined as the delivery and facilitation of health and health-related services including medical care, provider and patient education, health information services, and self-care via telecommunications and digital communication technologies. Live video conferencing, mobile health apps, “store and forward” electronic transmission, and remote patient monitoring (RPM) are examples of technologies used in telehealth.
Medical City Virtual Care allows patients to see and talk to licensed, board-certified physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants from their mobile device or computer through a secure internet video connection. These healthcare professionals can diagnose, treat and prescribe non-narcotic medication for a wide variety of adult and pediatric non-emergency medical conditions, including:
According to a May 2017 article by Alignment Chief Medical Officer Ken Kim, the organization’s efforts paid off. “Because of the program, Alignment’s seniors are seeing reduced 30-day readmission rates … compared to the national Medicare average readmission rate of about 18%. In 2016, Alignment members enrolled in remote [monitoring] across all markets saw hospital readmission rates of 7.2%.”
The growth in telemedicine solutions means that telemedicine options are now more diverse, with many more affordable solutions. However, most telemedicine programs do require the purchase, set-up and staff training of new technology and equipment – some of which may be outside the budget of providers in smaller independent practices. Many providers are already stretched thin on new technology budgets and staff training for EHR systems, imposed by the Meaningful Use program. Also, for patients who may not have access to a smartphone or a computer with internet, real-time telemedicine may be out of reach.
Store-and-forward is the oldest form of telehealth technology. It refers to the transmission of images or information from one provider to another. For example, if your doctor sends digital images of an x-ray to a radiologist for analysis, they are leveraging store-and-forward telehealth technology. This is one of the most common uses, but images and information of any type can be transmitted in this matter. One thing we should point out, however, is that store-and-forward telehealth is not always covered by state telemedicine reimbursement laws, even in states that require parity for real-time communication.
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Telemedicine is used in many different medical fields, throughout ambulatory and hospital settings. Almost every medical field has some use for consulting a patient or another provider (usually a specialist) remotely. Because of shortages of care, limited access to specialists in some areas, and remote locations of patients (especially in rural or sparsely populated areas), telemedicine is incredibly useful to any healthcare provider trying to expand access to quality patient care.
With many rural areas facing a shortage of specialists, telemedicine enables individual doctors to reach more patients. And the cost to patients for telehealth consultations is often lower than an in-office visit. By serving more patients in a shorter amount of time, healthcare organizations can cost-effectively grow their membership while increasing care quality and patient satisfaction.
This expectation for more convenient care, combined with the unavailability of many overburdened medical professionals (especially primary care providers) have led to the rise of telemedicine companies. Many offer patients 24/7 access to medical care with an on-call doctor contracted by that company. Others offer hospitals and larger health centers access to extra clinical staff and specialists, for outsourcing of special cases (common model among teleradiology companies). Still others provide a telemedicine platform for physicians to use to offer virtual visits with their own patients. Increasingly, telemedicine is becoming a way to give medical practices an edge in a competitive healthcare landscape where it’s difficult to stay independent or maintain a healthy bottom line.
If the state decides to cover telemedicine, but does not cover certain practitioners/providers of telemedicine or its telemedicine coverage is limited to certain parts of the state, then the state is responsible for assuring access and covering face-to-face visits/examinations by these "recognized" practitioners/providers in those parts of the state where telemedicine is not available.
Theoretically, the whole health system stands to benefit from telehealth. In a UK telehealth trial done in 2011, it was reported that the cost of health could be dramatically reduced with the use of telehealth monitoring. The usual cost of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) per cycle would be around $15,000, with telehealth it was reduced to $800 per patient. In Alaska the Federal Health Care Access Network which connects 3,000 healthcare providers to communities, engaged in 160,000 telehealth consultations from 2001 and saved the state $8.5 million in travel costs for just Medicaid patients. There are indications telehealth consumes fewer resources and requires fewer people to operate it with shorter training periods to implement initiatives.