Telemedicine: Here to stay?

Oct. 19, 2020 / By Katie Patterson, CPC

Pre-COVID-19, telemedicine was thought by many to be an option of convenience. COVID-19 has made it our main line of communication with physicians. Experts predict there will be more than one billion telemedicine visits by the end of 2020. This is a huge jump from only 36 million in 2019, which leads me to the question: Is telemedicine here to stay in a post-COVID-19 world?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of continuing this type of health care service.

The Pros

  • Distance/Locality – Patients residing in rural areas of the country now have access to a broad range of physicians with varied specialties.
  • Accessibility – Patients no longer need to take time off work for travel and can avoid long wait times. These are two of the major draws to continuing telemedicine visits.

Surprisingly, 74 percent of patients surveyed felt comfortable communicating with their physician virtually.

The Cons

  • Lack of physical contact/exam – Accurate diagnoses often depend on a physician’s physical examination of their patients. An example is a patient presenting with internal ear pain. In telemedicine visit, the physician has to rely on patient description and their own observation rather than the formal use of an otoscope to examine the inner ear. This could potentially lead to misdiagnosis or even a missed diagnosis causing the patient to end up in an urgent care setting.
  • Technical Difficulties – These can be time consuming and wasteful to a physician’s already packed schedule. It can also be an issue for patients with limited access to technology or who are unfamiliar with cell phone video tools, let alone accessing a Zoom meeting.
  • Accessibility – Many people do not have reliable internet access, making telemedicine visits difficult or impossible.
  • Reimbursement – Physicians are also reporting a decrease in reimbursement due to lack of clear information and inconsistent insurance plan policies covering telemedicine visits.

So, what does the future of telemedicine look like?

Studies show that chronic disease management represents an underutilized market for telemedicine. This is due to the frequency of visits required to treat chronic illnesses. Examples include:

  • Behavioral health
  • Psychiatry
  • Specialty disease related issues
  • Stroke care

We are also seeing a growth in the hospital-at-home model of telemedicine. This applies to patients who require hospitalization but are stable enough to be treated at home. Research studies show that this method is more cost effective than traditional inpatient care. The overall impact of telehealth includes decreased hospital visits, fewer ER visits, and greater emotional well being due to improved symptom management.

It appears that telemedicine will continue to offer a wide variety of benefits and services post COVID-19, with continued expansion of these services in 2021.

Katie Kitchen is a senior coding analyst at 3M Health Information Systems.

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