Telehealth services offer substantial opportunities for healthcare cost savings, as well as a proven effectiveness with improving patient care, particularly in rural areas. However, to get the most bang for the buck, there is still much work that needs to be done.
“With the widespread adoption of EMRs, digital health records provide physicians/clinicians with the remote monitoring capabilities to communicate with their patients,” said Fred Pennic, founder of HIT Consultant and senior advisor at Aspen Advisors.
This remote access to care saves time and money by allowing physicians to work with more patients and by cutting out travel expenses for people in rural areas — many of whom find travel to be a financial and physical hardship.
Pennic believes there are some key endeavors that need to take place for the full positive effects of telehealth medicine to be felt. He offers this food for thought:
1. Establish an incentive-based program. According to Pennic, sustainable funding is vital to the successful, widespread adoption of telehealth. “Creating more incentive-based programs or grants will provide agencies and other organizations with the funding necessary to overcome the start-up costs associated with implementing such initiatives,” he said. Recent research has proven the potential cost savings of such initiatives can be substantial, making the case for incentive-based programs to get telehealth initiatives up and running that much stronger. For example, after evaluating a telehealth program, researchers at Stanford University, found spending reductions of approximately 7.7 percent to 13.3 percent, or $312 to $542 per person per quarter.
2. Develop the infrastructure. “Having adequate infrastructures [in place] to support these initiatives are imperative,” said Pennic. Infrastructure is the “heart of telehealth,” he said, and includes investing in equipment such as fiber optics, broadband/wireless coverage, video, computer, voice and imaging.
3. Improve telehealth reimbursements. As it stands legislatively, said Pennic, there’s no universal reimbursement policy among public and private sectors governing the reimbursement of telehealth services — something he believes is imperative to its widespread adoption and success. “Current payment for telemedicine services, such as offsite reading of medical images, includes Medicaid, Medicare, employers and private insurers,” he said. “However, payment is limited for interactive consultations and chronic-care patients.”
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4. Foster user acceptance and confidence in telehealth. “Perhaps the greatest challenge in telehealth is increasing the user acceptance of technology, for both clinicians and patients who aren’t tech savvy,” said Pennic. Ideally, he said, successful telehealth programs must be able to easily integrate the telehealth process into healthcare and patient environments seamlessly. And although we know the federal Medicare program for seniors and disabled Americans doesn’t currently reimburse for telehealth and home monitoring services, a recent article is saying that could quickly change due to the upswing and acceptance of telehealth programs In fact, according to Dr. Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare in Boston, the future is “quite bright” for payment and reimbursement programs. Statics have proven telehealth’s effectiveness, the article states, with confidence in its ability to reduce readmission rates growing.
5. Allocate resources and time. In addition to meeting technology requirements, said Pennic, successful telehealth programs must have the proper allocated resources and time necessary to ensure its widespread adoption. “People and processes are the key components to effective telehealth utilization,” he said. Agreeing with Pennic is Laurence C. Baker, PhD, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford. After studying a Healthy Buddy telehealth program, which was used by Medicare patients in the Northwest, he found two main aspects played most into its success: the first being the “tight” integration of information and care management, and the second was the device itself, which was patient-friendly and easy to use.
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