Does Telemedicine Help or Hinder the Patient Experience?
Telehealth Helps Patient Engagement
Telemedicine has been one of the most talked-about new technologies in recent years. Supporters tout its ability to increase patient engagement. But a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that despite rapid growth, most Americans do not use telehealth.
If you’ve used Skype or Facetime to have a video chat with a friend, you know how telemedicine works. Patients and healthcare providers can use video technology as a conduit for diagnosing and treating new medical conditions, conducting follow-up visits, or consulting with a specialist located miles away.
Advocates say telemedicine is key to increasing patient engagement and satisfaction. So far, experience supports that view. Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston recently studied patients who used its telemedicine service for follow-up care.
- Sixty-eight percent rated the care they received as a nine or 10 on a scale of 1-10.
- Seventy-nine percent of patients said it was easier to schedule follow-up appointments than schedule in-office visits.
Telehealth connects providers with patients who may have difficulty getting regular care. Patients may live far away or have demanding work schedules. Family obligations may prevent them from getting regular medical care.
In a press release, lead study author Karen Donelan said, “Some of the patients in our study were parents of children who needed multiple frequent visits or older patients for whom travel was difficult to arrange.”
Why Patients Like Telemedicine
In an article on the Patient Engagement HIT website, Lee Schwamm, MD, director of the MGH Center for Telehealth, said patients are generally satisfied with the quality of care they receive but are dissatisfied with the amount of time they spend in waiting rooms or traveling long distances for in-office appointments.
“What patients value most is uninterrupted time with their doctor,” Schwamm said. “Telehealth gives them more of what they want most and gets rid of the stuff they don’t want.”
In a typical telemedicine visit, up to 95 percent of a patient’s time is spent with the doctor. That compares to traditional visits when patients may spend 80 percent of their time traveling and waiting, Schwamm explains.
Patients also like telemedicine because it can reduce costs when compared to office visits, trips to an emergency department or going to an urgent care center. A study by Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Del. showed patients saved an average of $50 compared to urgent care or emergency care. The Florida ER Utilization Report says telemedicine saves residents $114 million every year.
Telemedicine Can Hinder Patient Satisfaction
There are several obstacles that hinder increased patient satisfaction. Among them are:
A study of telemedicine published in the January 2019 issue of the American Journal of Managed Care reported that 32.7 percent of patients thought they did not experience the same level of personal connection that they did with office visits.
Physicians and nurse practitioners are currently limited in their ability to prescribe controlled substances through telemedicine. The American Telemedicine Association has been lobbying the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to amend the regulations, but no action has been taken to date.
Competition from Alternatives
Patients who live in more populated areas of the country have several alternatives to telemedicine, including:
- Primary care physicians.
- Concierge medicine.
- Urgent care centers.
- Emergency departments.
- Retail health clinics.
What Providers Should Know About Telehealth
Consumers are growing more comfortable.
A recent study by Doximity says the number of physicians who say they use telemedicine doubled between 2015 and 2018 and continues to rise by about 20 percent each year. Patient use of telemedicine has increased 261 percent annually between 2015 and 2017.
The Doximity study attributes that growth to several factors:
- A shortage of physicians in specialty and primary care.
- Current technology allows physicians to provide consultations and services more efficiently.
- Insurance companies are beginning to reimburse providers for telemedicine services.
Healthcare providers who offer telemedicine can use computers, tablets, smartphones or other devices to:
- Remotely evaluate a patient’s symptoms.
- Diagnose illnesses or injuries.
- Prescribe treatments.
- Answer their patients’ questions.
Telemedicine provides clinicians with an effective way to improve their patients’ quality of life, according to a survey published recently in the Annals of Vascular Surgery.
The study looked at cardiovascular patients from the Appalachian region of the country. Many residents of that area live far from any heart and vascular specialist and it can take hours for them to drive to follow-up appointments. The study found that postoperative patients who used telemedicine reported greater satisfaction and a better quality of life than patients who did not.
Telemedicine Helps More Than Hinders Patient Engagement
Patients and providers who have used telemedicine give it high marks for quality and convenience, particularly for follow-up care. There are some obstacles that have limited its use, such as limitations on providers’ ability to prescribe certain drugs. As those limitations are removed, future adoption of telemedicine should only increase patient engagement with their healthcare providers.