Telemedicine could revolutionize health care

The house call is back. Several tech companies are working to deliver doctors to patients’ doorsteps at the touch of a button — or the swipe of a smartphone.

For patients outside the cities where these apps are taking off, there’s the virtual house call, whether via video-messaging services like Skype or home health-monitoring devices that beam a person’s vital signs to a doctor far, far away.

Such services allow doctors to diagnose and treat patients in real-time, as well as transmit x-rays and other information to specialists.

Congress is taking notice. This month, lawmakers simultaneously introduced bills in the House and the Senate that would expand access to high-tech services for Medicare beneficiaries.

Congress should embrace this use of telemedicine to alleviate the crises of access and cost plaguing the program.

Many Medicare beneficiaries struggle to secure a doctor’s appointment. Just 38 percent of doctors in Minneapolis accept patients covered by Medicare, according to a survey by Merritt Hawkins. In Boston, 98 percent of doctors reported that they were taking Medicare patients. Seventy-three percent said they would see Medicaid patients. But average wait times for an appointment across the two programs averaged 45 days.

Then there are Medicare’s ballooning costs. Last year, Medicare cost taxpayers $600 billion. By 2024, that number could grow to $860 billion annually. Fortunately, telemedicine can improve access to care and reduce costs. Telehealth can help the one in five seniors who no longer drives — and the 54 percent who lack adequate access to public transit. For these folks, getting to the doctor is the chief barrier to receiving care.

Research shows that telemedicine also delivers better quality care than in-person. Consider a University of Massachusetts Medical School study of 110,000 patients who were treated in the intensive care unit. Some received medical attention from remote specialists with basic monitoring from on-site doctors. Others received traditional in-hospital care.

Patients with access to telehealth services were 26 percent more likely to survive the ICU and were discharged from the unit 20 percent faster than those without telehealth access.

Telehealth services also cost less. Replacing an in-person doctor’s appointment with a telehealth visit would save Medicare $45 each time.

The UMMS study concluded that remote patient monitoring services — or the use of mobile medical devices to keep care providers updated on medical conditions — could save Medicare $10,000 per patient.

Some allege that virtual visits can result in misdiagnoses. But that’s false. According to a 2014 study of Medicare patients, in 83 percent of telehealth visits, the condition for which care was sought was resolved.

Doctors also support telehealth. A recent survey of over 2,000 physicians found nearly six in 10 doctors are willing to work with patients over video. Eight in 10 doctors believe telemedicine helps manage patients with chronic disease. Congress should double-down on this.

One new measure — the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act — would waive certain restrictions that Medicare imposes on telehealth services. Avalere Health says the bill would save the government $1.8 billion over a decade by expanding enrollees’ access to care.

Telemedicine could revolutionize health care by bringing top-notch care to patients in their homes — and at lower costs. One hopes “Uber, but for Medicare” will soon be a reality.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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