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Interest grows in telemedicine programs

Manufacturing Group | February 13, 2014

First assessment of national telemedicine service finds efforts appear to expand access to acute medical care.

Washington - People who are younger, more affluent and do not have established health care relationships are more likely to use a telemedicine program that allows patients to get medical help – including prescriptions – by talking to a doctor over the telephone, according to a new RAND Corp. study

Patients who used the service suffered from a wide assortment of acute medical problems such as respiratory illnesses and skin problems, and researchers found little evidence of misdiagnosis or treatment failure among those who used the service.

The findings, published in the February edition of the journal Health Affairs, are from the first assessment of a telemedicine program offered to a large, diverse group of patients across the United States.

"Telemedicine services such as the one we studied that directly links physicians and patients via telephone or Internet have the potential to expand access to care and lower costs," said Lori Uscher-Pines, lead author of the study and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "However, little is known about how these services are being used and whether they provide good quality care. Our study provides a first step to better understand this growing health care trend."

Interest has grown in telemedicine programs because of the shortage of primary care physicians, which will likely worsen as more Americans acquire medical coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Telemedicine is one of the alternatives touted as a way to better provide primary health care without greatly expanding the number of doctors.

Uscher-Pines and co-author Dr. Ateev Mehrotra  studied 3,701 patient "visits" provided from April 2012 to February 2013 by Teladoc, one of the nation's largest providers of telemedicine services. Teladoc is different from most other telemedicine efforts that connect patients to providers for specialty visits or connect providers to other providers for consults for in-hospital care.

The patients studied all were covered through a health plan offered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System, which provides health insurance to the state's public workers. Patients who used Teladoc were compared to peers who visited hospital emergency departments or a doctor's office for a similar problem.

Source: Rand Corp.

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