The Roadmap to Improving Telemedicine in AmericaTelemedicine, or medical services provided through the Internet, have taken the web by storm in recent years. As more and more people have found that they simply don’t have the time to visit a doctor’s office, and as physicians have found that they can get more done with fewer costs through the Internet, telemedicine is poised to be the wave of the future when it comes to consumer medical technology; however, with all of the capabilities offered by telemedicine, the United States is actually lagging in this important category of science.
The Origins of Telemedicine
Telemedicine was first seen as a viable option within rural communities. This, of course, was because it took longer for rural residents to travel to a physician’s office, so discussing issues over the Internet made things faster and cheaper, both for doctors and patients. In time, the concept spread to larger urban areas, but here too a benefit was found. In urban areas, doctors are often pressed for time and resources, and by using telemedicine technology, medical professionals have been able to see more patients in a shorter amount of time.
The challenge with telemedicine, however, is that it does not allow for an in-person visit, and therefore, some conditions are difficult to diagnose and treat. To add to this, different patients own different technology, so while one webcam or smartphone camera may produce brilliant results, others may be less-than-stellar. This can make the job of assessing a patient’s condition difficult over the web. Also, the issues of things like pain tolerance and drug-seeking behaviors may be harder to detect when only speaking with a patient online.
Telemedicine as an Alternative to Primary Care
In addition, it’s recommended that telemedicine be used only as an alternative to primary, in-person care. Once again, one of the great disadvantages to telemedicine is that a physician cannot accurately assess a patient’s physical condition, even after a discussion of symptoms. This can severely limit the physician’s ability to diagnose a condition or prescribe medications because he or she does not have access to diagnostic tools.
In the future, however, telemedicine may change. Currently, researchers and engineers are working on creating affordable equipment that will link to telemedical connections so that doctors can receive real-time feedback regarding various vital signs. These may include virtual stethoscopes and other sensors.
Why the United States is Falling Behind in Telemedicine
Although the United States provides some of the most Internet-capable technologies in the world, it is still ranking behind other countries in terms of telemedicine. One of the reasons for this is federal regulations. Currently, physicians within the United States must adhere to hundreds of regulations on a daily basis when conducting business with patients in person. Because telemedicine is still a new phenomenon, regulations aren’t clear as to what physicians must do in order to make virtual visits valid and legal.
The concept of telemedicine is also contentious within the medical malpractice community. Suppose a doctor were to prescribe a medication to a patient based on seeing a rash over a low-quality web camera and that patient become sick or died as a result of the medication. Could the doctor deny responsibility due to the quality of the image? Would the patient’s family have cause to file a lawsuit because the doctor prescribed a medication without examining the condition in person? All of the questions mean more time will be required before telemedicine is accepted within the United States.
How to Overcome This Perceived Disadvantage
In order to overcome these challenges, telemedicine providers will need to streamline processes and make the process of writing prescriptions less bureaucratic. Physicians will need to be able to provide prescriptions and advice without the federal government breathing down their necks regarding regulations, but at the same time, technology will need to catch up. It’s not fair to deny a patient proper health care simply because he/she either doesn’t have a high-quality webcam or because he or she is unable to articulate his or her symptoms.
In an office setting, the patient would not need these things as the doctor would have the equipment on-hand to evaluate the patient’s condition. As mentioned, technology is moving in the direction of offering affordable, at-home tools, but for the moment, patients and doctors are left with video conferencing and intuition. Sadly, these will likely not be enough to save lives in a larger number of cases.
Telemedicine Can Be Cheaper, Yet Bring in More Money
An interesting point about telemedicine is that it is traditionally cheaper for both doctors and patients, but it can bring in substantially more money for physicians. Say an average general health visit is 15-20 minutes long and costs $125. Now, suppose a telemedicine visit is $150 and only lasts 10-15 minutes. Well, as a physician, you would certainly make more money, and on top of that, you would be able to make that extra money in less time from anywhere an Internet connection was present.
In fact, you might even be able to offer telemedicine services “after hours” if you were willing to put in the additional time. Many people need medical treatment or exams before 9 am and after 5 pm, and unfortunately, those are the hours most physicians’ offices are closed. When you utilize telemedicine, you gain the advantage of providing live medical services to patients 24 hours a day or whenever you choose to provide them. This can be a great benefit when competing with other doctors in the local area.Telemedicine on the Go
Another huge advantage of relying on telemedicine services is that you can likely provide them on-the-go. Today’s mobile technology has advanced to the point where patients and physicians can interact via video chat through mobile devices. By offering such a service, you can make additional money while driving to and from work, while on vacation, or anywhere in between. The key to this is to potentially charge a premium for on-demand access, and make sure patients understand that you are not available 24 hours a day.
If this becomes an issue, as may be the case with concierge medical services, you may need to look at adding additional medical staff to your team. I f your business grows enough that you are able to offer not only concierge medical services, but also 24/7 availability, it’s likely that you will need at least three nurses and six doctors on your staff at all times. Once again, charge a premium for in-home or in-office service outside of regular business hours.
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Andrew Rusnak is an author who writes on topics that include medical technology and business development.