Each month, William G. takes a day off work, driving 20 miles to have his hypertension monitored at a local VA clinic. Between fuel costs, lost pay, and co-pays, the Vietnam-era veteran estimates his visit costs him about $70—a lot of money for a man getting by on social security and a convenience store salary. Each month, he debates the choice between essential healthcare and essential income.
Fortunately, telemedicine has the potential to help William and millions of other Americans avoid those tough choices by reducing in-person office visits, missed work days, and hospital readmissions.
What is telemedicine?
Often described as “the right care at the right time and place,” telemedicine uses technology to connect patients at home or in local clinics to distant healthcare providers, services, and information.
The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) estimates more than 15 million Americans will benefit from some form of telemedicine in 2015, including:
- Stroke victims who receive prompt, life-saving diagnoses in local emergency rooms via video “telestroke” consultations.
- COPD patients who use home-monitoring devices to transmit daily weight, blood pressure, and other biometrics to their doctors.
- Patients in under-served rural areas who use interactive video to consult with otherwise-inaccessible specialists such as psychiatrists, dermatologists, and endocrinologists.
In the process, these patients are avoiding more frequent, costly office and emergency room visits and gaining better control of their health.
How much are telemedicine patients saving?
As one of the nation’s largest healthcare payers/providers, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has some of the most comprehensive data on telemedicine’s financial impact on a large patient population.
Treating 608,900 vets via 1.8 million telemedicine “episodes of care” in Fiscal Year 2013, the VHA estimates that these vets each saved $1,999 in travel and other related expenses.
But VHA’s telemedicine services didn’t simply reduce direct patient costs. They also significantly reduced inpatient days and hospital admissions, produced high levels of patient satisfaction, and improved healthcare access for the 45% of vets who live in rural or remote areas.
Encouraged by these results, the VHA plans to increase its telemedicine services by 22% annually and has even eliminated telemedicine co-pays. That’s potentially good news for William who says his local VA clinic doesn’t yet offer those services.
Who Benefits Most from Telemedicine?
As the most frequent users of our healthcare system, patients with chronic diseases stand the most to gain from telemedicine—both in terms of outcomes and personal costs.
In fact, one study found that COPD patients using remote monitoring equipment improved their health outcomes while saving $2,931 in annualized costs. A rigorous literature review of telemedicine studies from 2000 to 2014 found that patients with congestive heart failure, stroke, and COPD, benefited more economically from tele-monitoring than “usual care.”
From a broader perspective though, we ALL stand to benefit from telemedicine. Between the aging boomer generation and shortage of primary care providers, our entire healthcare system will be hard-pressed to meet future needs. It’s likely that increased demand combined with limited supply will drive higher costs and longer waits for care.
But if more patients can get “the right care at the right time and place” via telemedicine, we all stand a better chance of also getting care at the “right price.” That’s good news for William but also for you.
Julie Potyraj is the community manager for the MHA@GW and MPH@GW blogs, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Her passion for population health developed while she was a community health volunteer in Zambia. She is currently an MPH@GW student.