Healthcare News & Insights

Telemedicine and its flaws: Not perfect just yet – but getting there

 

Telemedicine is becoming increasingly widespread in the US. As technology becomes an intrinsic part of our lives, and we spend more and more time engaged in our devices, it makes sense to have healthcare administered digitally when possible. In this guest post, Rishi Madhok, MD, and Bo Vargas, co-founders of a telehealth service that allows users to receive virtual medical attention in exchange for access to non-identifying data, detail the benefits of telemedicine and the obstacles it still has to overcome.

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The Commonwealth Fund, in one of its yearly evaluations, concluded that the U.S. medical system is one of the lowest ranked when compared with other wealthy countries, falling far behind the UK, the Netherlands and Canada.

Could telemedicine help provide solutions? It has the potential to help people who normally wouldn’t have the time or money to see a doctor and streamline the process of seeing a doctor.

As a growing industry with America’s largest employers offering it to its employees, it’s now firmly in the mainstream.

But it’s far from perfect and faces several obstacles. According to a Reuters survey, usage rates are low, with only 2.5% of employees at companies questioned saying they used the telemedicine services on offer. Let’s look at the downfalls of this industry and how they could potentially be remedied.

Issues faced by the industry

As the benefits of telemedicine become more apparent, with U.S. employers making big pushes to adopt it and its availability through most major health insurance systems, it looks like it’s set to completely transform the way we go about visiting a doctor. Not only is it convenient, with patients able to see and speak to doctors when they otherwise couldn’t, but it can dramatically reduce costs as well.

By far one of the biggest problems is you aren’t face-to-face with a doctor when using a telemedicine platform. It can be difficult for patients to convey their symptoms, and some doctors have referred to it as “cold and inhuman” and that the “power of the human touch should never be underestimated.” With telemedicine, doctors can’t push and prod in the traditional sense – they can only see and hear.

Another issue is the fact it isn’t readily available to everyone yet. There are issues with regulation, too. Texas, for example, is one state that’s seen a lot of legal challenges – and previously prohibited doctors from diagnosing patients over the phone if they hadn’t had a face-to-face visit first. Though the state has made big strides to be like many other states, problems remain, with worries that new legislation is vague and could stop doctors from wanting to use the service.

Then there’s the issue of getting access to it through your employer. Not every employer is willing to offer the service to its employees. Sure, it’s without a doubt growing, as mentioned before, but it’s still not ubiquitous. Even where it’s available, some are still skeptical, with employee utilization at just 8%.

What can help?

Though telemedicine is still in its – relatively – early stages, these problems should be solved now. The first problem, that of it being “cold and inhuman,” is currently being worked on. Telemedicine companies are teaming up with insurance providers to make the whole experience as real as possible. The likes of NowClinic, Doctor on Demand and American Well are working with health insurance body UnitedHealthcare to perfect the video call appointment. This can be done by making the patient feel like they are in the doctor’s office: emulating the formal setting; having the doctors wear their white coat, along with the stethoscope in the pocket.

It’s precisely this drive to make the virtual appointment just as good as a normal visit to the doctors that will eventually lead to telemedicine being as good as the real thing. There are even arguments that it could even be better than the real thing – with some singing its praises for efficiency, more focused one-to-one appointments, reduced risk of exposure and a broader approach to treatment.

The other issue of making telemedicine available to all is something that’s in the works. With companies partnering with health systems, local government and employers, the service is becoming far more accessible. With some organizations employing their own doctors, resources that would otherwise be unavailable are at hand.

Then there’s the option of making it free. A low cost or cost-free service is another quality the industry needs to adopt. Though this doesn’t sound feasible, a good way to do this is by monetizing patient data. Of course this isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s something telemedicine companies should be working toward.

And getting on the sides of employers is a must. Using effective marketing tactics to demonstrate the value of your brand is of course one way to do this. But demonstrating to big employers how they can benefit is better. By showing companies they can slash costs and give their employees quicker access to care, allowing smaller problems to be evaluated from early on, they’ll soon see the huge benefits.

Even though it can be easy to sing the benefits of telemedicine, as we have seen, there’s a lot of room for improvement. By making it far more available, more realistic, functional and cost-effective, more people will have access to this service and all its potential.

Rishi Madhok, MD, and Bo Vargas are co-founders of BitMED, a telehealth service that allows users to receive virtual medical attention in exchange for access to non-identifying data.

 

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