5 myths of telemedicine

In today's world of UBER, Amazon Prime, and FaceTime consumers want access to medical care when they need it and from wherever they are.

Patients don't want to be on a "panel." They want medical care on their terms and at prices they understand. "Telemedicine," which as a market is estimated to grow by more than $34 billion by the end of 2020, will undoubtedly play a role in the future of healthcare. The telemedicine market is in its infancy and has created general confusion about the broad category. Telemedicine is a technology – a means to achieving many clinical and business objectives. Like the "telephone" after which the technology is badly named, telemedicine can be used for a wide range of clinical applications. However, telemedicine, like any technology, is only as good as the people that are using it and the appropriateness of the application.

Below are five common myths about telemedicine, along with information to help correct these misconceptions that can deter providers and patients from appropriately leveraging the technology and reaping its substantial benefits.

Myth #1: Telemedicine is lower quality.
Quality has been one of the biggest areas of pushback for telemedicine and was the impetus for recent legislation in Texas. This concern is often driven by a lack of standards or oversight in the industry. Through rigorous, evidence-based guidelines and innovative clinical treatment support software, many conditions can be treated safely and consistently with virtual care. However, not every patient can or should be treated virtually and those patients should be referred to a physical location. For those patients who do receive virtual care, it is important that clinicians follow the same quality standards their peers in traditional clinics follow, including incorporating case review as part of the quality control process.

Our experience shows that 64 percent of the visitors who seek care with a virtual clinic can be treated virtually. The remaining 36 percent are given medically appropriate referrals to the health system's traditional clinics.

Another way to measure quality is by examining prescription rates. Is the prescription rate for patients receiving care via telemedicine consistent with those who visit a traditional clinic? And how does that compare to quality benchmarks? If a telemedicine provider cites prescription rates higher than you would expect, there is reason to be concerned.

Myth #2: Telemedicine leads to care fragmentation.
When done right, telemedicine can actually extend an existing provider-patient relationship or create a new one. No one works 24/7, even doctors, but illness and injury do not wait for standard office hours. With telemedicine integrated into a health system's delivery model, patients can receive care from providers who have access to their medical records. Following the virtual encounter, an integrated telemedicine program will ensure patients are referred back to their primary care provider.

Virtual care also extends service hours and geographic reach for people that may not otherwise be engaged with a health system. In fact, as many as 70 percent of patients visiting our partners' virtual clinics had no prior relationship with the health system.

Myth #3: Telemedicine threatens patient privacy.
Privacy and data security are concerns for patients and providers. With a number of data breaches in the last year and strict HIPAA requirements, secure communications methods are critical to ensure patient privacy. A virtual clinic that is health system branded and integrated – rather than a standalone product that's akin to a simple app – adheres to the same data security, privacy, and quality standards as in-person care provided by system clinicians.

Myth #4: Telemedicine is hard to implement.
Telemedicine is a new way to deliver care that can have a large impact on how a health system operates. Most IT departments are fatigued from implementation of an EMR and are busy with everything from data security risks and privacy concerns to big data and innovation. So, it's understandable that an IT department would pushback to implementing and sustaining a virtual clinic. In fact, one partner estimated it would take two years to build its own telemedicine offering. The answer is to phase the implementation, focusing on the priority objectives initially. Outsourcing can also minimize the impact a telemedicine implementation has on an organization. Through strong partnerships, health systems can set up, staff, and launch their own virtual clinics in less than 90 days with minimal need for IT involvement. Since the virtual clinics are part of their health system and their information sharing structures, integration is built in from the start.

Myth #5: All telemedicine companies operate the same way.
There are currently about 200 telemedicine networks, according to the American Telemedicine Association. Many of the largest telemedicine companies allow nearly any physician to provide virtual care to patients through a standalone, non-integrated app. In contrast, some health systems are launching their own system-branded virtual clinics to expand their patient base and prepare to manage more risk. These integrated system-based models often employ clinicians that are specially trained and only provide care virtually, while still integrating with the overall clinical workflow.

These five myths make clear that there are common misconceptions around telemedicine that can ultimately cause people to misinterpret the positive attributes of virtual care. Whether you're looking to expand your reach, compete with the drug store-based clinics, or lay the foundation to manage more risk, using the right model for telemedicine is necessary. Virtual care is no longer just for early-adopter health systems. Just like an Emergency Department or urgent care clinic, virtual care is an essential service for all health systems.

Ralph C. Derrickson is president & CEO of Carena, Inc., a leading telemedicine company that partners with health systems to provide everything they need for a virtual clinic—the technology, the marketing, and the board-certified clinicians. All of it up and running in less than 90 days.

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