Telemedicine Holds Promise for Health Care

Published March 1, 2008

A new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), “Convenient Care and Telemedicine,” says telemedicine can remedy several of the problems currently plaguing the health care industry.

The study’s author, NCPA Senior Fellow Devon Herrick, Ph.D., says the use of telemedicine technology can lower costs and improve convenience for doctors and patients.

The study defines telemedicine as “the use of information technology for diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients’ conditions.”

“In a nutshell, the information age just left doctors behind,” Herrick said. “You can talk to your lawyer on the phone, you can talk to your accountant, but most doctors don’t get reimbursed for talking on the phone, so they have no incentive to do so.”

Solving Problems

The NCPA study takes an in-depth look at some current issues in health care and describes how telemedical techniques can help solve those problems.

“It’s the high-tech age,” said Herrick. “The information age can really revolutionize health care.”

Consumers already use health Web sites to answer some questions, Herrick notes. According to NCPA a recent poll found more than 80 percent of Americans with Internet access–about 113 million adults–have searched online for health information at least once.

The NCPA study, released in November, recommends patients take their use of information technology further and begin using the Internet or telephone to replace in-house or clinical visits where possible.

Replacing Office Visits

For many ailments, Herrick said, the patient doesn’t need to be in front of the doctor, but his or her information does. Using technology to provide the doctor with thorough information can, in many circumstances, replace visits to a doctor or to the emergency room. With more complete information accessible in electronic medical records, doctors could make faster and more accurate diagnoses of patient problems.

A tech-savvy doctor can respond to a phone call or e-mail with a diagnosis, thereby saving some patients any visit at all, Herrick said. That would expedite the diagnosing process for both doctor and patient, as some potential patients could avoid not only expensive emergency room trips but also less-costly trips to doctors’ offices and wasted time in waiting rooms.

The study notes patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes also could benefit from telemedicine by using technology to collect and transmit data about their condition to their doctor. Instead of regularly seeing patients, the doctor could monitor their health remotely, then make an appointment if a concern arises.

Increasing Benefits

Herrick says patients can increase their access to the benefits of telemedicine by taking greater control of their money through measures such as health savings accounts (HSAs).

“The only thing stopping us [from using telemedicine to our advantage] is a reluctance to control our own health care dollars,” Herrick said. “An insurance company does not want to look for ways to spend their money–and they think it is their money. If we control the dollars, as I do with my HSA, the consumer can decide the value.”

Returning Power to Consumers

John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute, says the integration of telemedicine into medical care could return some power to the consumer.

“Any time you give people more choice, things get better,” Graham said. “Health care markets are local. You don’t have the freedom of choice you’d have when, say, you’re buying a bicycle. You’re sort of stuck with the doctors in your local area. Telemedicine opens that up.”

For legislators, Graham added, that may mean revisiting regulations and allowing patients to consult with doctors who may be located across state lines.

Increasing Acceptance

Increased availability of telemedicine may be on the way for some consumers. Insurance giant CIGNA HealthCare announced at the end of 2007 it will be making available nationally a program providing increased access to secure online messaging, enabling physicians to make “virtual house calls” for non-urgent, routine health matters.

If there is significant patient response to that innovation, more companies could follow suit.

According to the NCPA study, telemedicine may offer providers and consumers reduced expenses and increased quality.

Dr. Allen Wenner, a family practice physician who works for Prime Time Medical Software in Lexington, South Carolina, said, “When you improve quality, everything else is better.”

Unfortunately, Wenner noted, “That’s a hard concept to convince anybody of in health care.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

“Convenient Care and Telemedicine,” National Center for Policy Analysis, November 2007: