Telemedicine has been growing steadily as a way to provide care to patients who live in remote areas, can’t travel, or who want to talk to a doctor from the comfort of their own home. For those older citizens who aren’t able to drive or find a way to travel to a physician, telemedicine provides them with a way to receive care. Already being utilized worldwide, telemedicine can provide care that is just as good as the care a patient would receive in an office while being much easier to access. It’s shaping the future of healthcare delivery, from dermatology to telestroke.
Unfortunately, less than 1% of Medicare beneficiaries cover telemedicine, which means the seniors who can really benefit from it aren’t able to use it. Even in areas where telemedicine is available, restrictions on its use make it difficult to practice. So with all the pros, what’s keeping Medicare from covering it? It comes down to one thing, cost. With the annual program spending of Medicare reaching $466 billion in 2012, spending on telemedicine only reached $5 million, a tiny fraction of the total.
The government maintains these restrictions and encourages low use because the thought remains that telemedicine could increase Medicare costs. This goes against the advice of experts, who say that telemedicine decreases more costly health services, like emergency room visits. In other words, coverage of telemedicine services would not only provide better care for patients, but would also save money in the long run.
With these changing beliefs, pushes are being made to transform the system. AARP is behind the change, but stresses that they would like to see it in conjunction with regular in-person office visits. Mia Finkelston, a family physician in Leonardtown, MD, mentions that while seniors are more likely than younger patients to have complicated health issues, relying on telemedicine services is no riskier because the physician is still able to decipher if the patient needs to come in to the clinic. “Our intent is not to replace their primary care physician, but to augment their care,” she said.
In today’s world, almost everything you need can be accessed right when you need it, wherever you are. With telemedicine growing, this is just as true in the healthcare world. Hopefully, soon we’ll see Medicare changing its attitude, too.