In a world where technology reigns, individual physicians have to move with the times—or risk being left behind, says Jonathon Savage, DO, vice chair of the mHealth, Technology and Distance Learning Group for the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).
“Our patients are living in an online and on-demand world. So, we as physicians need to live in that world,” he says. “If we don’t meet the patients where they are, we are going to become like the music stores and the video stores of the past.”
Telemedicine is revolutionizing health care—and changing rapidly.
Following are five trends emerging in telemedicine today:
1. More insurers are covering telemedicine
As telemedicine becomes more widely used and accepted, insurance companies and government-administered health care programs increasingly are stepping up to cover such care, says Dr. Savage, who also serves as CEO for Care on Location, which provides telehealth services and technology solutions.
For example, he notes that Medicare now covers some types of remote patient monitoring and telehealth services, such as remotely monitoring a patient’s heart function from home.
“In 2018, that was something that was not covered by Medicare,” he says. “It now is.”
In addition, 34 states and Washington, DC, have laws mandating that private insurers cover telemedicine services in the same manner that they cover in-person services, according to the ATA.
Michael Brown, DO, says he also has noticed a growing acceptance of telemedicine.
“It seems like most health plans have some kind of telemedicine benefit,” says Dr. Brown, a family physician in Kansas City, Missouri, and the former director of telemedicine at Mosaic Life Care in Kearney, Missouri.
2. More doctors are embracing telemedicine
Physician use of telemedicine services jumped 340% between 2015 and 2018, according to a recent American Well survey.
About 22% of doctors used telemedicine services in their practice in 2018. In 2015, just 5% of doctors used such services.
The turn toward telemedicine is likely a response to patient demand. A 2017 survey by the Advisory Board found that 77% of patients would consider seeing a provider virtually.
“If you’re not offering this kind of service, then your patients might start looking for it elsewhere,” says Dr. Brown.
3. Obstacles to embracing telemedicine remain
While more doctors are embracing telemedicine, many others have yet to do so.
The Deloitte 2018 Surveys of U.S. Health Care Consumers and Physicians found that while 90% of physicians view “virtual care” positively, just 14% have video visit capabilities today.
Regan A. Stiegmann, DO, MPH, co-director of the digital health track at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Colorado and Utah campuses, is not surprised that some doctors hesitate to plunge into telemedicine.
“This is cutting-edge stuff,” says Dr. Stiegmann, who directs the track with Cole Zanetti, DO.
However, she believes telemedicine offers great potential benefits for physicians and patients alike. It can help physicians to treat patients who cannot travel easily, she says—including patients who want to see a doctor promptly, but are prevented from doing so due to physical limitations, difficulty accessing reliable transportation, or even inclement weather.
For older physicians long out of school, learning about telemedicine can be challenging, according to Dr. Brown. “Last time I looked, there is still no textbook on how to practice telemedicine,” he says.
If you’re interested in telemedicine, he recommends joining a group like the ATA and going to some of their meetings.
4. Artificial intelligence is gaining acceptance
Artificial intelligence promises to change our world, and medicine is no exception.
Dr. Savage says a growing number of health care providers are learning to trust the value of AI-based software. For example, he says such software is effective in identifying pulmonary nodules in chest X-rays, and determining whether moles are malignant.
Dr. Savage says AI-based software can be used on the front end of a patient encounter “where it can actually be your triage person.” The software can gather information and use logic “to determine what is the best next set of questions to ask the patient,” Dr. Savage says.
From there, the physician can use the information gathered to determine the next best step—from ordering a biopsy to referring the patient to a specialist.
Dr Savage also notes that AI should be seen as a way to enhance the physician’s role—not to replace it.
“You can take your skill set and you can magnify it,” he says. “You can go away from that one-to-one relationship and basically turn it into a one-to-many relationship.”
5. Students are getting better telemedicine training
Younger physicians have grown up in a predominantly digital world. So, it’s natural that the doctors of tomorrow are learning to use technology in conjunction with their traditional medical education.
The first program of its kind at an osteopathic medical school, the digital health track at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is beginning this month, allows interested students to spend two semesters, plus time during clinical rotations, exploring the myriad ways to improve health care with technology.
“Within the digital health track, we’re educating student doctors about artificial intelligence, clinical informatics—basically the wider swath of what would encapsulate telemedicine,” says Dr. Stiegmann, the track’s co-director.
As these younger physicians begin to practice, the hope is that their education in digital health will help them to become active participants in shaping the future integration of technology and medicine, she adds.
For example, she envisions such physicians taking their insights from day-to-day health care interactions and working closely with companies so they are “building the actual solutions” via apps and other products for the marketplace.
“This is absolutely the tipping point, where the new generation of doctors are coming to the proverbial table,” Dr. Stiegmann says.