2015 State Legislative Conference

Survey: Telehealth Increases Access to Care, Continuity

November 11, 2015 04:12 pm Michael Laff Minneapolis –

Your patients depend on you for the best medical care, and thanks to technology, they don't necessarily need to visit your office to receive it.

William Thornbury, M.D., R.Ph., the founder of an online appointment site called meVisit, tells attendees at the AAFP State Legislative Conference how he launched a telemedicine platform to consult with patients.

As more family physicians begin using telehealth systems, speakers at the AAFP State Legislative Conference, held here Nov. 6-7, discussed how the technology can enhance patient care and shared findings from a survey(www.graham-center.org)(22 page PDF) of family physicians' thoughts about and use of telehealth.

Researchers at the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care said 15 percent of the 1,557 physicians who responded to the survey reported using telehealth in the past year. The survey contains some bias because respondents were more likely to use telemedicine, explained Megan Coffman, M.S., a health policy administrator for the Robert Graham Center who presented the research.

Respondents said the technology's strongest points are improving access to care and providing continuity of care. Obstacles they cited included the cost of equipment, lack of training and potential liability.

Story Highlights
  • Speakers at the AAFP State Legislative Conference recently presented findings from a survey of family physicians regarding their use of telehealth services.
  • Respondents said the technology's strongest points are improving access to care and providing continuity of care.
  • One speaker said that as retail health clinics begin using telehealth, family physicians should also do so -- and should press for fair payment.

A profile of the typical telehealth user emerged as one who

  • is more likely to be practicing in a rural area (76 percent),
  • works with six or more family physicians (40 percent) and
  • uses electronic health records (98 percent).

When physicians were asked how they used telehealth, the leading responses were diagnosis or treatment (55 percent), chronic disease management (26 percent) and patient followup (21 percent). Physicians, whether they use telehealth or not, agreed that the technology improves access to and continuity of care. The question of whether it reduces cost has not been answered.

"There is not enough data on whether telemedicine saves money," said Coffman. "That is yet to be seen. From a patient perspective, it saves time and money, but there is not enough information."

Telehealth systems are good for increasing efficiency, said William Thornbury, M.D., R.Ph., the founder of an online appointment site called meVisit.(www.mevisit.com)

"We take 60 patents per day at the clinic," said Thornbury, who also serves as medical director at the Medical Associate Clinic in Glasgow, Ky. "I can't take any new patients. The real problem is 30 percent of my patients don't need to be in the clinic, but the only way to get paid is to see them there. "

meVisit's telehealth application, available on mobile phones and computers, is designed to allow physicians to address minor health problems that do not require an office visit. Patients can select a reason for a consult from a menu or type it in themselves, and they can upload photos.

Thornbury said family physicians should consider telemedicine because retail health clinics are doing so. Walgreens plans to launch a telehealth mobile application in 25 states starting in January 2016.

"How is our health system going to compete in this arena?" Thornbury asked.

Thornbury said most patients pay a $37 copay for telemedicine visits. One of the concerns among insurers is that ease of access could lead to frequent, unnecessary consults, but Thornbury suggested that copays could be raised to solve that problem, should it arise.

States are beginning to recognize the value of telemedicine and are requiring insurers to do the same. Montana, for instance, passed a law requiring insurers to pay for telemedicine on terms equal to those for office visits.

As the medical profession moves to greater efficiency with an emphasis on reducing costs, Thornbury said family physicians should press hard for fair payment.

"Radiologists are benefiting from new technology that allows them to work faster, and they are not being asked to take less money," he said. "Why are we being penalized for it? If we are more efficient and take on more liability, care is care is care."

Related AAFP News Coverage
Gauging the Promise and Perils of Telemedicine
AAFP Calls for Adequate Payment, Fewer Restrictions

(6/24/2014)

Robert Graham Center Forum
Telemedicine Can Build Bridge to Expanded Health Care, Say Panelists

(2/5/2014)

More From AAFP
Member Interest Group: Telehealth

Family Practice Management: Should You Treat Your Patients Virtually?


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