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Telemedicine Expansion Continues Amid Skepticism

Experts and insurers remain wary and question cost savings

Telemedicine is believed to provide an alternative to in-person care, with the potential to provide high-quality health care at a reduced cost. St. Mercy Hospital in St. Louis believes in the prospects of telemedicine and is set to begin a telemedicine initiative to help treat thousands of patients across five states. 

The new facility, Kaiser Health News reports, will provide more patients in remote parts of the Midwest and South with health monitoring that is comparable to what a patient could get in a big hospital, said Tom Hale, executive medical director of Mercy Virtual. He said telemedicine can be of high quality and cheaper than in-person care.

A lot of what Hale and his team now provide is care for patients in rural areas, but its use may soon explode with a different group of patients: baby boomers who want to age at home instead of in a nursing facility. Industry analyst Sarah Turk of IBISWorld says that could propel telehealth to a $3.5 billion industry by 2020.

“Coverage will be expanded to include more physicians and more specialties and also a range of communications,” she said. “So instead of it being only interactive video consultation, it could be text messaging as well.”

But she said the telehealth boom still faces some big challenges. Many insurance companies have been slow to pay for telemedicine. Medicare is a financial powerhouse, and insurance companies often follow its lead on payments. Medicare only pays for telemedicine in rural or medically underserved areas and only when video conferencing is used.

 Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard University said insurers have good reason to be skeptical. He says telemedicine does seem to provide good access to high-quality medical care, but even though it could save money theoretically, that’s not what is happening.

“What tends to happen is that it tends to be an addition,” Jha explained. “You do the telemedicine, it leads to more tests. It leads to more follow-up visits. And over time, when you look at the data, it turns out that telemedicine overall is not necessarily a big cost saver.”

Source: Kaiser Health News; October 5, 2015.



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