Health Care Providers Embrace Telemedicine
A national meeting of telemedicine industry leaders held in Minneapolis last week provided continuing evidence that providers are embracing telehealth as an inevitable wave of the future, despite continuing resistance from insurers and the inability of laws and regulations to keep pace with the changes.
At least that’s the take of the Mayo Clinic’s top telehealth advocates, including CEO Dr. John Noseworthy, who delivered one of the keynote addresses at ATA 2016, the annual conference and trade show of the American Telemedicine Association.
The Rochester clinic has a pioneering track record in telehealth, choosing to forge ahead in an era when adequate insurance reimbursement for those services remains spotty or (in many states) non-existent – opting instead to absorb the costs in an effort to integrate videoconferencing and other telecommunication technologies as quickly as possible to benefit patients.
Along with Noseworthy in the Mayo contingent at ATA 2016 was Dr. Steve Ommen, a heart specialist and the associate dean of the clinic’s Center for Connected Care, which coordinates its efforts to leverage advances in communications technology to extend physician care to remote locations around the state – and the world.
Ommen said what struck him most about the Minneapolis gathering was that the discussion about telehealth seems to have shifted away from how to spark interest in it (which now appears to be a given) to how to integrate it within healthcare organizations. And Mayo’s early adoption of the concept has given other providers a model of how it can be done.
“They’re asking, ‘How do we make this a part of what we do?” he told TCB. “Of course, this may just be ‘confirmation bias’ on my part, but I think at Mayo, at least, we have a strong feeling that the integration of telemedicine into our organization is the path to success. We think that if we’re wildly successful, we’ll stop taking about ‘telemedicine’ as a separate business unit, and rather it will just be another part of the practice of medicine.”
Ommen compares it to the evolution of ATMs and online banking. The days when banks and their customers considered those electronic transactions as somehow distinct from traditional banking activities have evaporated as people became more comfortable with the technology: Now it’s all just considered “banking.”
The wider adoption of telemedicine techniques such as videoconferencing via home computers and smartphones is being driven by several factors, not the least of which is a looming shortage of physicians, especially in rural areas where such shortages are already acute and accessing care more difficult.
Also providing impetus is the greater number of insured under the “Obamacare” reforms; the push by providers toward “population health management” in which patient data is used to track outcomes and lower costs; and the quickly rising demand for home health care for the elderly.
The Minnesota Hospital Association asserts that telemedicine can reduce hospital readmission rates and prevent or mitigate medical emergencies. In one study it cites, tele-monitoring of patients at risk of heart failure produced a 23 percent decrease in hospital admissions and a 38 percent reduction in readmissions within 90 days when compared to patients not being monitored. As a result, the provider reduced costs by 11 percent.
And for those in the telemedicine business, it’s potentially a huge market – just how big is still emerging as more insurers and employers begin to pay for such services and as the value is quantified. However, a recent study from business information provider Grand View Research predicts the U.S. telehealth market will grow from $240 million in revenue in 2013 to $2.8 billion in 2022 — an annual growth rate of more than 50 percent.
However, standing in the way of wider adoption is continuing reluctance by insurers to cover telemedicine, or at least at the same rate as in-person visits. In the case of Medicare, telemedicine coverage extends only to rural counties officially designated as “health professional shortage areas.”
The battle for insured telemedicine is being waged on a state-by-state basis, and last year, backers scored a big victory in St. Paul. That’s when Minnesota became the 23rd state to require such coverage, and went a step further with the Minnesota Telemedicine Act to require parity of payment with in-person visits. The provisions kick in with commercial health plans issued after Jan. 1, 2017.