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Four ways telemedicine will open a whole new world of health care

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Your smartphone or computer will always be easier to get to than your doctor, but that’s just one reason telemedicine — health care delivered virtually through those devices — is poised to play a major role in improving access in the health care system of the future.

The technology has the potential to revamp how we deliver quality care, making it faster, more convenient and less expensive than traditional office visits. Patients and the health care industry see the benefits and the potential, and that’s helping fuel big growth in the use of telemedicine. Industry-watchers predict there will be 78.5 million people worldwide using home health technologies, — a form of telemedicine — by the year 2020, up from 14.5 million last year. Telemedicine is predicted to be a $34 billion industry by then, with 40 percent of that spending coming from the U.S.

Experts predict there will be 78.5 million people worldwide using home health technologies by the year 2020, up from 14.5 million in 2014.

Yet despite its growing adoption, a lot of people don’t understand the full scope of what telemedicine can offer. For the most part, it has largely been viewed as a way to address urgent care-type issues, or to extend health care access to regions where doctors are scarce. While it can do both of those, that’s just a narrow slice of what telemedicine could do for the health care system as a whole, particularly when paired with a new slew of devices, services and other remote monitoring technologies.

Here are four major areas of health care where telemedicine is poised to make a major impact soon.

Urgent care 2.0
Patients and the health care system have already shown how effective telemedicine can be for treating common urgent care issues like ear or respiratory tract infections. Until recently, there had been technological limitations to the type of care doctors could provide when they were not in the room, and limited to interacting with patients through words or video alone. But newer technology and services that are fast becoming available will go much farther than ever before in breaking down some of those barriers.

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From telemedicine kiosks to small handheld devices, there are an ever-growing number of new telemedicine-enabling devices that allow providers to conduct physical exams remotely and consumers to share their clinical data from almost anywhere. You can convert a smartphone into an otoscope, for instance, or use a soon-to-be-available, handheld tricorder to help your doctor examine your heart, lungs, ears, or even take your vital signs like heart rate.

From telemedicine kiosks to small handheld devices, there are an ever-growing number of new telemedicine devices that allow doctors to conduct physical exams remotely and consumers to share their clinical data from almost anywhere.

More accessible primary care
What if you need to visit your regular doctor? Log in. Telemedicine could act as a valuable channel to help patients reach their primary care physicians, giving them access to providers who are familiar with their medical history — something that typically does not happen with urgent care issues — and who will be responsible for ongoing care. Making primary care easier and more convenient to access could lead to improved quality outcomes and reduce costs related to chronic conditions through better and timelier care. And it’s already happening in some areas. Aetna, for instance, is currently leading a pilot in Alaska that enables Aetna members to access care directly from their primary care physicians (PCPs) using secure video conferencing technology, and we are exploring how to make video-conferencing with PCPs more widely available.

Specialty medical services
If you’ve ever tried to book a dermatologist or other high-demand specialty care provider, you know how tough it can be to get an appointment. Telemedicine can help by using advanced telecommunications technology to create an expanded virtual network for specialty providers and services for a wide range of specialties, including dermatology and behavioral therapy. Aetna, for instance, has developed pilot programs for using telemedicine for dermatology, and to extend the reach of Employee Assistance Programs.

Aetna is currently leading a pilot in Alaska that enables Aetna members to access care directly from their primary care physicians using secure video conferencing technology.

Care management and monitoring
Another area where telehealth could improve access to care and quality of outcomes is remote monitoring, which allows health care providers to frequently or continuously check patients’ key health indicators. For patients with chronic conditions, for instance, real time access to heart rate, blood pressure, weight or other clinical information could help health care providers better manage their patients’ care. This could also help ensure better care for seniors who are aging in place, extending caregiver support to ensure safety and peace of mind.

The health care industry has just started scratching the surface of what telemedicine can do. As the technology becomes more commonly used in various, different settings, we will continue to look for new and better ways to apply the technology in to make health care less expensive, more accessible and more accountable. And that’s something everyone should be excited about.