Why hasn't telemedicine taken off? Blame Norman Rockwell

It may be the famous American painter Norman Rockwell's fault that telemedicine isn't living up to the hype, according to Clifton Leaf, a Fortune journalist.

The artist, known for his depictions of family physicians, helped cement their image into the American mind: "White smock. Stethoscope. Family doctor with kind eyes and infinite patience," Mr. Leaf writes.

Specifically, he asks: In the digital age, why are patients still making in-office appointments with physicians and fighting for facetime when care could be delivered virtually?

Telemedicine has been around for years, and numerous studies have sought to compare the quality of virtual care to that done in person. Most of the research — such as a 2015 Cochrane report — has found telemedicine produces similar or better outcomes. Other studies, like one led by a team of San Marcos-based Texas State University researchers, show telemedicine positively affects patient satisfaction, Mr. Leaf writes.

Despite its success, patients have been reluctant to use it, and payers have been somewhat resistant to reimbursing it, Mr. Leaf argues.  

Increasingly, this is changing. One currently unpublished study presented at June's America's Health Insurance Plans expo in San Diego and reviewed by Mr. Leaf showed telemedicine visits cost an average of $38, compared with $114 for face-to-face visits. That study was sponsored by Humana and undertaken by Doctor On Demand, a telemedicine company.

That unpublished study examined about 5,500 medical encounters — half virtual and half in person — between 2016 and 2017. It also shows patients seen in either setting were just as likely to have the same number of physician follow-up appointments and emergency room visits. Moreover, physicians prescribed fewer antibiotics via telemedicine (36.1 percent) than those who saw patients in person (40.1 percent).

"The image of the gray-haired family physician, stethoscope in ear, patiently listening to the heartbeat of a porcelain doll as his young patient looks on, is indelible in the public memory," Mr. Leaf writes. "So when will the telemedicine migration finally take off? Well, you'd have to ask Norman Rockwell's doctor that. And he's in with a patient."

Click here to access the complete Fortune article.

Editor's note: The article was updated July 11, 2018 at 9:42 a.m. to clarify that Humana has not acquired Doctor On Demand. Becker's Hospital Review sincerely apologizes for this error.

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