At hospitals and clinics across New Jersey, thousands of new doctors could soon be on call — literally.
In Trenton, lawmakers are considering two bills that would enable doctors and patients to skip the office visit and conduct appointments using video-conferencing tools like Skype.
They’re right to embrace this kind of technology. The increasing use of “telemedicine” promises to improve patients’ access to doctors and slash health care costs.
Virtual medicine makes it a lot easier — and cheaper — to see the doctor. By first consulting with a patient by video, doctors and nurses can determine whether a costly in-person trip to the emergency room or to the doctor’s office is necessary — or whether two aspirin and plenty of rest will do.
For patients who end up in the hospital, telemedicine can facilitate faster and cheaper convalescence.
Consider a patient recovering from heart surgery. His doctor may want to continuously monitor his blood pressure and pulse. Telemedicine can accomplish that remotely and automatically. That saves the patient the trip and the doctor the time measuring those vital signs.
Telemedicine can also save money. Take a program called Health Buddy, which asks patients daily, tailored questions about their health through a handheld device at home. After reviewing the answers, doctors know when and how to offer care. A study published in Health Affairs found that Health Buddy reduced Medicare spending by as much as 13 percent per patient.
Other programs offer patients hospital-level care inside their own homes. Doctors and nurses visit one to two times a day while other providers monitor vital signs remotely. Participating patients often require fewer tests and less time under observation, so these “hospital at home” programs can cut costs by 19 percent compared to conventional inpatient care.
Telemedicine can also alleviate the mental stress of being sick. Someone diagnosed with heart disease, for instance, may understandably worry about his prognosis. That can take a toll on his physical health and jeopardize his chances of recovery.
Health care providers can ease these concerns with remote counseling. One such telecounseling program helped cardiovascular disease patients deal with anxiety and depression through video sessions. Over six months, the program reduced hospital admissions by 38 percent compared to a control group, according to a report published by the American Journal of Managed Care.
Telemedicine can improve health care providers’ ability to communicate with one another, too. By connecting doctors with health workers in emergency rooms, for example, telemedicine can prevent 850,000 unnecessary transfers between ERs each year. The savings? More than $530 million.
There’s even evidence that telemedicine can offer care that’s superior to inpatient care. Take Teladoc, a videoconferencing technology that allows patients to consult with a doctor around the clock. According to one study, those who used Teladoc were less likely to need to see the doctor again for the same illness than patients who actually went to the doctor’s office.
Finally, telemedicine may also decrease wait times. American Well, for example, offers a mobile app that allows patients to send out a request for a doctor — much like one does for an Uber — and the first to respond does the consultation via videoconferencing. Over the last three years, the average time has been three minutes.
New Jersey’s lawmakers seem to be paying attention to all this research, particularly Sens. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, and Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, and Assembly representatives. Pamela Lampitt, D-Burlington-Camden, and Daniel Benson, D-Mercer-Middlesex. One of Lampitt’s bills (A-2668) would establish parity for insurance coverage of telemedicine with conventional in-patient care. A bill sponsored by Vitale (S-291) would allow patients to seek telemedicine services from out-of-state doctors. This latter measure would also permit New Jersey’s Medicaid program to reimburse for telemedicine.
Thus far, the Garden State has been slow to adopt telemedicine. Insurers in many other states already cover it. The American Telemedicine Association recently gave New Jersey six Fs on crucial telemedicine issues, including allowing for the reimbursement of remote patient monitoring and videoconferencing.
State leaders now have the chance to raise those grades. Telemedicine controls costs and improves patients’ health. It’s time for New Jersey to take advantage.