Will Telehealth Finally Disrupt Mainstream Healthcare?

The mainstream emergence of telehealth – the technologies and tactics used to deliver virtual medical, health and educational services – has been a long time coming. Today’s technology boom may make it seem a novel concept, but the roots of telehealth go back a century, when in 1906, Dr. Willem Einthoven, inventor of the EKG, devised a way to transmit health data over telephone lines. Modern telehealth traces back to 1955 when a remote clinic in Nebraska established a closed-circuit TV connection with a hospital 100 miles away.  And by 2000, videoconferencing between medical facilities was a commonly used feature among hospitals located in rural areas. But because of stringent reimbursement regulations, telehealth never became a mainstream utility within health services, as there weren’t adequate financial incentives.

A New Day for Telehealth

Today, the Affordable Care Act’s parity laws have eased restrictions in Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance reimbursements, creating opportunities for telehealth to evolve and achieve its potential as a disruptive force in healthcare delivery. As of January, 22 U.S. states have passed legislation requiring that telehealth visits be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits. These reimbursement changes are likely to trigger significant expansion and integration of telehealth in many different areas of healthcare delivery.

The Primary Driver: Cost Savings from Telehealth

To truly expand and integrate telehealth capabilities into mainstream services, it’s vital that companies strategically plan around maximum utility and cost-saving opportunities, including carefully selecting which of the many telehealth modalities to incorporate. Some of the most promising areas for effective telehealth utilization now and in the times ahead include:
  • Telepsychiatry (targeted to rural psychiatric patients)
  • Tele-Intensive Care Unit (targeted to crowded intensive care units)
  • Mobile-Health Applications (targeted to chronic disease management)
The cost savings on these key focus areas has been demonstrated in a slew of recent telehealth studies. For instance, a recent study published in March evaluated the benefits of a coordinated child telepsychiatry consult system for a state Medicaid division. The results showed lower pediatric psychiatric medication prescriptions, fewer avoidable hospitalizations and more local community-delivered treatments, along with financial advantages such as the overall financial return on investment valued at roughly double (1.82:1) for combined services.

What’s next: Standardizing Clinical Guidelines

These cost savings, along with the utility and benefits telehealth offers healthcare providers, not to mention the enhanced access options it affords patients and the potential for improved care quality outcomes, present a strong case for further expansion in healthcare delivery systems. But given the many different approaches and norms for conducting telehealth, it will be essential to develop a framework of sound clinical guidelines to help standardize these approaches moving forward. The good news is that standardization should happen quickly as we already have a head-start, with a wealth of existing data to support the creation of evidence-based guidelines and standards.

Telehealth may finally be having its day as an innovative and cost-effective mainstream healthcare delivery option, as long as it is able to take this vital next step in its evolution. Developing standardized clinical guidelines will be the key that allows this up-and-coming contender to become a major disruptor in healthcare – bringing many new financial and non-financial advantages to providers and the patients who need them.