6 Keys to a Successful Telemedicine Practice

Developed by Cisco, this "connected care" mobile clinic gives patients access to health care services that might not otherwise be available to them because of distance, time, or other constraints.
Developed by Cisco, this “connected care” mobile clinic gives patients access to health care services that might not otherwise be available to them because of distance, time, or other constraints.

If you’re a budding entrepreneur looking for a chance to make your fortune, it’s hard not to be tempted by the opportunities offered by the burgeoning telemedicine industry.

Although the basic elements of telemedicine have been around for years, a number of recent events and factors have come together to give added impetus to growth in this fledgling field. For example, the Affordable Care Act — or any reasonable facsimile thereof that may in time replace it — is making health care more readily available to millions of Americans who have not had it in the past.

So, on the one hand, you have a sharp projected increase in demand for the services of primary care practitioners, calculated by the Health Resources and Services Administration to grow 14 percent from 2010 through 2020.

On the other hand, HRSA, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, expects the supply of primary care physicians to grow by only 8 percent from 2010 through 2020. Obviously, innovative ways must be found to address this shortfall.

Telemedicine may provide one way to bridge the gap between demand for health care services that is growing at a more rapid rate than the supply of resources to meet that demand. An enormous amount of money and time is being spent on unnecessary visits to doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms. Using videoconferencing technology, telemedicine offers a convenient way to quickly determine what, if any, further medical attention a patient might need. This can reduce overall medical costs and free up medical professionals to devote the bulk of their time to providing care that is more urgently needed.

While all of the foregoing points help to explain why the prospects are excellent for growth of the telemedicine sector, it doesn’t offer much guidance about what steps you’ll need to take to make your telemedicine venture a success. So let’s consider some tips that can help the services of your telemedicine practice stand out from those offered by the competition.


  1. Determine Strategic Objectives

One of the most appealing aspects of telemedicine is the various ways in which its services can be deployed. However, you’re unlikely to succeed if you try to be all things to all people. You will need to determine what sort of service you would like to provide, which will then help you to develop concrete measures that need to be taken to accomplish your goal.

A few years back, Mark Vanderwerf, who at the time served as president of AMD Global Telemedicine, wrote an article for the International Society for Telemedicine and eHealth offering a few examples of varying telemedicine business models. The first such example, called the Access to Care Model, involves the delivery of care to people living in remote locations who do not have adequate medical care available to them for either geographic reasons or a lack of resources.

Essentially a purpose-built personal computer, Intel’s Health Guide PHS6000 offers medical device integration, audio/video interactivity for both patients and medical professionals, and the ability to capture and transmit vitals signs data

Vanderwerf called his second telemedicine business model the Cost Savings Model, which provides alternative care delivery methods to reduce cost. Such a practice could be set up to serve prisons, industrial sites, or other institutional operations, thus reducing those institutions’ transportation costs and providing more cost-effective health care to those being served.

A third telemedicine business model suggested by Vanderwerf is his so-called Access to Market Model, designed to expand the market that can be served by one or more health care providers. Whether one of Vanderwerf’s business models appeals to you or you have something else in mind, you must define the precise nature of the telemedicine practice you plan to offer so that you can then map out a strategy to get the job done.


  1. Acquaint Yourself with Applicable Laws, Regulations

Depending on the markets you choose to serve with your telemedicine practice, you must familiarize yourself with local, state, and federal laws and regulations that govern the operations of such a business. While most political jurisdictions have been working to structure laws and regulations in a way that will facilitate the growth of telemedicine, that is not universally the case. A recent decision by the Texas Medical Board prohibits telemedicine consultations between doctors and patients who have not already established a face-to-face relationship. Telemedicine companies expect this regulation will make it difficult for them to conduct operations in the Lone Star State.


  1. Check Out Reimbursement Policies

For a telemedicine practice to succeed and grow, it must be able to ensure that it can be fully reimbursed for the services it provides. Although private health insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid have made strides in adopting reimbursement policies that are telemedicine-friendly, there remains a lack of policy uniformity among private and public entities that reimburse for health care services. Based on the type of telemedicine practice you’re planning to establish, its location, and the broader area that it will serve, you should attempt to confirm that there are no significant obstacles to getting reimbursed for the services the practice provides.


  1. Assemble Top-Flight Practitioners

Unless you are a medical professional yourself and are planning a telemedicine practice as an extension of, or alternative to, your existing practice, you will need to put together a team of medical professionals fully qualified to serve the health care needs of your target market. Your telemedicine operation’s success depends to a very large extent on the quality of the medical professionals on your staff. If you don’t feel qualified to make hiring decisions in this area, by all means avail yourself of qualified medical human resources consultants who can advise you on this all-important aspect of your practice.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs demonstrate a new telehealth scheduling system to veterans service organizations.

Interviewed for an article posted at Forbes.com recently, Daniel Carlin, M.D., founder and chief executive officer of WorldClinic, a high-end telemedicine practice, shared some of his thoughts about what it takes to succeed in the telemedicine field. He noted that WorldClinic “uses seasoned emergency room physicians for the initial call because of their experience and skill in diagnosing and treating a wide range of illness and injury.” Once this first-response team has triaged patients based on the severity of their medical problem, a care team takes over “to follow up on all incidents as well as make appointments and referrals.”


  1. Use Easy-to-Operate mHealth Devices

The specific form your telemedicine practice will take dictates in large part the type of telecommunications and diagnostic equipment you should buy to equip your practice. If your patients will be coming to a central diagnostic center from which contact can be established with medical specialists and experts in various disciplines, then your on-site personnel will do the lion’s share of running these devices. If, however, patients are to be supplied with mHealth devices through which their health issues can be periodically monitored, Dr. Carlin suggests purchasing mHealth devices that are easy for patients to use yet provide useful information for medical professionals.


  1. Importance of Securing Medical Data

The stringent health information privacy rules established under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) make it essential that your telemedicine practice safeguard patient information. In his interview with Forbes, Dr. Carlin recommended using “a platform that integrates telemedicine calls/episodes/data into a secure medical record system and is reviewed by the physician and care team.” He points out the distinction between this comprehensive approach and the “Dial-a-Doc model that service[s] simple episodic urgent care phone calls but, through lack of sustained case continuity, misses the mark for any complex or chronic problem.”

Photo credits: Cisco Pics, Tim Gee, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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