Telemedicine: The doctor will see you now

Jul 16 2014
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Consider the typical doctor visit for non-urgent care, like treating a sore throat or sinus infection. The travel to and from the office, the time spent in a waiting room and the time you actually spend with the doctor that typically lasts 15 minutes or less all point to a question: is it necessary to actually go to a doctor’s office?

For many people, telemedicine is an attractive option when they need professional consultation for a minor problem. Particularly in light of a recent estimation from the Affiliated Workers Association that up to 70 percent of doctors’ visits can be handled without an in-person consultation. Whether web chats or structured telephone calls, these virtual alternatives can deliver effective health care solutions that also help both doctors and patients save time, which makes everyone happier.

“The tools of the future are here that can allow consumers and physicians to engage in more effective and efficient care of minor illnesses. Telemedicine also can play a critical role in improving health and managing chronic disease,” said Andrew Baskin, M.D., vice president and national medical director for quality performance at Aetna.

And while telemedicine offers convenience, Baskin emphasizes that virtual consultation simply adds a new element to the patient-doctor relationship. “Telemedicine is not an alternative to establishing a relationship with primary care physicians. Clearly, office visits — and emergency care — will always be vital to the health care system,” he said.

Telemedicine has advanced significantly since the 1990s, adding mobile devices and two-way videoconferencing that makes interaction significantly more like an in-person visit than it used to be. The convenience is attractive for the busy person who doesn’t have two hours in the middle of the day for an appointment, for rural residents or for the sick or elderly who can’t travel easily. Telemedicine can also help reduce costs by reducing unnecessary emergency room visits and hospital readmissions as consumers use virtual options for after-hours care and provider instruction.

The US military uses a solution that allows personnel to communicate with doctors on secure channels from the field to an office or hospital in real time. Some rural hospitals are working in tandem with larger facilities to improve care for patients. Aetna offers customers services through Teladoc and Computerized Screening, Inc. (CSI). These structured programs give members access to physician care via telephone or web.

For the average person, though, telemedicine is still finding a place in daily life. Policy makers also are currently considering how to implement the technology broadly. A critical issue is building connectivity between telemedicine and in-person care so that care is coordinated.

“It’s essential to make sure the information gathered in a telemedicine encounter can be securely and easily shared with the person’s primary care provider, ” Baskin noted. “This critical information link is a game changer that keeps primary care providers and their patients engaged and working together.”

In today’s world, convenience, access and affordability strongly influence how members access and engage in their health. “Telemedicine will be a valuable component of the nation’s evolving health care system that is focused on patient needs and improved health outcomes,” Baskin said.