As millions of Americans previously uninsured flood the healthcare system in the wake of implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the shortage of doctors to handle the influx is becoming an increasingly urgent problem. Telemedicine, defined as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status, enables physicians to interact with their patients through virtual visits. This ability may provide at least a partial answer to the shortage of available physicians, especially in rural areas where specialists are not always readily accessible to large patient populations spread across vast geographical areas.
According to the American Telemedicine Association, it is estimated that 15 million people will receive some form of healthcare via telemedicine this year. Currently, 25 states allow the use of telemedicine. Many of these states require that services be covered by insurance. But it is important to note that the types of services available to patients vary greatly from state to state. For instance, not all states allowing physicians to have virtual visits with patients allow the physicians to prescribe medications during these visits. Some states also limit the type of visit that can be performed virtually. As an example, some states allow for follow up patient visits only, requiring that all initial consultations still be made in person in a clinical setting.
Telemedicine is a promising technology, as it provides readily apparent benefits in terms of:
- accessibility to needed medical care for patients in rural areas
- substantial cost savings when compared to traditional office visits
- improved patient outcomes
- better patient satisfaction levels
However, telemedicine is limited by some obvious constraints. The lack of uniform regulation nationwide, the reluctance of some insurers to cover virtual visits in their benefit offerings, and the fact that telemedicine is not the medically appropriate solution in all cases hinder it from being a one-size-fits-all solution.
Regardless of its current limitations, however, it is likely that telemedicine will play a large role in the healthcare landscape of the near future. As advances in technology continue and more patients and physicians become comfortable using those technologies, telemedicine will likely become a powerful tool in the hands of skilled physicians for years to come.
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