Is telemedicine the future of health care?

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Evolving technologies are helping doctors better meet the needs of patients

DataPath, Inc., a company engaged in technology solutions to help employers administer health benefits, has announced an agreement to add HealthPoint Plus telehealth services to its cloud-based Summit platform.

More than a simple business deal, the move reveals a trend that is occurring more and more in health care. HealthPoint Plus is a subscription-based service that provides unlimited monthly access to live doctors for participants and their families via video conferencing using the patient’s smartphone or tablet.

"A routine visit to the doctor is time-consuming, disruptive to a family, and can cost hundreds of dollars,” said Greg Licata, chief product officer at DataPath. “Employers that offer this service can lower their total claims costs through their group carrier.”

Patients in under-served communities

It is no doubt a cost-saver for the employer, but what about the patient? Is seeing a doctor electronically just as effective as sitting in their office?

As telemedicine becomes more sophisticated, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says its quality has improved. That may be especially important in rural, under-served communities -- even more so when patients need to see a specialist.

In a post on the AAFP blog last month, Tate Hinkle, M.D., a family physician in Alexander City, Ala., said his local hospital had great difficulty obtaining the services of subspecialists. 

“So, our hospital partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, which had already developed a tele-intensivist program with another hospital in our state,” Hinkle wrote. “This collaboration allowed me and other physicians who round at our hospital to consult an intensivist at UAB on any patient we need extra assistance in managing, 24/7, via a small cart we roll into patients' rooms. This helps us to better manage complex patients, and local physicians are more comfortable managing such patients knowing we have backup just a click away.”

Staying closer to home

The payoff, Hinkle says, is that fewer patients are transferred from their local hospital, allowing them to receive the care they need closer to home.

Telemedicine may play a bigger role in Medicare in the future. Last month, 22 members of the U.S. Senate signed a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar asking that his agency provide guidance to states and providers on any money available under Medicare to pay for Project ECHO telemedicine programs. 

“Ultimately, as states and the federal government pursue delivery system reforms to achieve better patient outcomes and value, we recognize the need to improve access to high-quality, cost-effective specialty care,” the lawmakers wrote.

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