Telehealth Services Provide Medical and Financial Benefits

May 5, 2014
Ed Rabinowitz

As the percentage of older Americans grows in the next 10 years, telehealth services will become increasingly important in order to address the healthcare needs of these patients.

It’s often said that numbers don’t lie. And the numbers from the McFarlin Group indicate that the percentage of older Americans is growing … and growing rapidly.

According to the firm, 12.6% of the current U.S. population is age 65 and older. By 2020 that figure will increase to 16.3%, and to nearly 20% by 2030. How will their healthcare needs be tended to? Many believe it will be increasingly through telehealth services. Paul Kleeberg, MD, REACH clinical director for Minnesota and North Dakota, agrees.

“[Use of telehealth tools] is gradually exploding,” Kleeberg says. “It isn’t just the face-to-face consult stuff, but it’s the growth of remote monitoring; the wireless scales in patients’ homes, the blood pressure monitors that patients can use. All of those things provide a much richer picture to the provider.”

And convenience for patients.

Clearing the hurdles

Kleeberg believes that despite the growth of telehealth services, particularly in rural areas, there are complicating factors surrounding its adoption. One is the time it takes to use within a medical practice.

“If I want to use it, I might need to go down the hall, or find somebody on the other end to coordinate it,” Kleeberg explains. “When we think of the virtual meaning perspective of telemedicine, there is a technical barrier, which is gradually getting less and less. So, I think in that respect, telemedicine is going to do nothing but grow.”

One of the reasons for Kleeberg’s optimism is based on a parallel he draws between telehealth and using programs like Skype to virtually visit with distant family and friends. He points out that, as opposed to speaking on the phone, seeing the person provides a richer experience, especially when you can see an individual’s face.

“If you think about that in terms of me using Skype in the office, I don’t have to go down the hall to do it,” he explains. “If a specialist on the other end is there, they can see my patient, they can look at things. It’s a much richer environment than me getting on the phone to talk to someone, trying to get an answer. And it’s much more convenient for the patient, because then they don’t have to make an appointment.”

Diagnostic and financial benefits

When touting the benefits of telehealth services, Kleeberg recalls the “old” idea of home visits from years past. When he visited a patient in their home, he learned a great deal simply by looking at their living environment. Reasons why they might have medical problems, or could get injured while at home, became readily apparent. Telehealth enables physicians to do the same: to see the patient’s environment.

“Again, it makes for a much richer experience,” he says. “Video interactions can create a much richer environment for the provider to be able to assess his or her patients.”

Kleeberg also believes that telehealth services can have a positive financial impact on a medical practice’s bottom line—particularly that of a specialist. As an example, he says there are a lot of cardiologists who spend time driving out to smaller facilities or smaller hospitals throughout their state to provide follow-up care or other specialty care for some of the patients in these facilities. If there was a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant, or some healthcare professional whom they truly trusted who could provide some of the hands-on feedback, that specialist might be able to deliver the information to the physician remotely, without having to do a lot of traveling.

“For those specialists who do a lot of travel in order to be able to see patients, there may be an immediate benefit to them,” Kleeberg says. “It winds up saving them some time. As costs decline, I think you’ll begin to see that used broadly and have a broader application for more providers. And if you’re a primary care physician in an environment that’s more competitive, that may give you a little bit of an advantage in your environment—that people know that you have direct connection to specialists who use telehealth.”

Where to start

Kleeberg suggests that medical practices looking to take the first steps in utilizing telehealth services should consider their need, and the potential benefit. Also, check with a local telehealth association that can help put you in contact with other physicians in the area who might be providing these services.

“The general internist who’s seeing patients right now in their office, they need specialists on occasion with whom they wish to consult,” Kleeberg says. “They can consult with that specialist while the patient is waiting. It’s a very altruistic thing to do for your patient population.”