It’s 1843, and your son has a fever. It’s been getting worse for days, and you know he needs help. So, you get on your horse, pull him up and start riding. After miles and miles, you finally reach the only doctor in the county in a desperate attempt to get care for your child. This story would be exactly the same if it were told in 212 B.C., 873, 1564 and even well into the 1900s.
In 2019, too many patients are still forced to do the same thing. This time, instead of a horse, it might be a car or bus, if you’re lucky enough to own one or afford the fare.
While we’ve made massive strides in medicine in recent decades, accessing high-quality care continues to be a challenge. It doesn’t matter how great the care is if you can’t get to it.
As massive biomedical advancements occurred, other scientists were working to revolutionize communication. Today, we carry technology in our pockets and purses that can connect us nearly instantaneously with anyone, anywhere in the world. Can this technology be used to bridge the access divide and fundamentally change the delivery of healthcare forever?
I think the answer is YES. There are three major reasons that I believe telemedicine will revolutionize healthcare for the better and potentially become the great equalizer: access to care, improved patient outcomes and enhanced training for providers.
Access to care
In the above example, we see how access can limit people’s health. Today, a confluence of socioeconomic and geographic factors impacts who can get care, when and how often. The telecommunications revolution has the power to fundamentally change this dynamic and remove this barrier to care.
Imagine that instead of catching three buses and taking the day off work, your provider is just a few taps away on your cellphone. For many patients, this is the new reality — care in your pocket.
In my district, Aunt Martha’s has been pioneering the delivery of child and adolescent mental healthcare for a decade. Many of their clients live in rural Illinois, often hundreds of miles from the closest psychiatrist. By leveraging state investments to build the infrastructure, today 80 percent of their clients, 11,000 individuals, receive psychiatric services via telehealth.
Nationally, the Veterans Affairs Administration is also using telemedicine to improve care delivery and access for our brave veterans. It’s no secret that the VA system has faced several challenges in recent years, particularly related to long delays in receiving care. These innovative programs are a step toward reducing these long wait times and ensuring our veterans get the care they deserve and earned.
Improved patient outcomes
While telemedicine can improve access to care, many people have reasonable concerns about not seeing a doctor in the traditional way. Yet, the telemedicine revolution has shown to improve patient outcomes.
A 2017 study showed a more than 33 percent reduction in patient ICU stays through telemedicine. Another study from the same year showed a decrease in treatment costs associated with patient ICU stays.
However, telemedicine is not a silver bullet. A 2016 study showed how the positive impact of telemedicine varied between hospitals implementing it. While there is clear evidence, especially in ICU cases, that telemedicine can improve patient outcomes, administrators and providers need to integrate telemedicine into the overall care program.
Enhanced training for providers
Another area of telemedicine advancement is in the training of providers. For decades, universities and our military have been successfully using digital education. Recently, medical training has moved online. For example, Project Echo seeks to provide primary care providers with specialized training to meet the specific needs of their patients, especially when specialists are hundreds of miles from a patient’s location. As medical education takes advantage of the digital revolution, I know we will see more innovative programs that further empower providers to give their patients the best possible care.
Now, no innovation occurs without challenges. Adaptation, especially in a massive, interconnected system like healthcare, takes times, effort and action. We need guide rails to prevent ‘prescription mills’ and changes to the reimbursement system so providers receive fair compensation for their services.
And this is the point where I ask for your help. Congress is just now coming to terms with the potential and challenges of telemedicine, and we need to hear from providers like you. You can always reach me at robinkelly.house.gov with your comments, thoughts and ideas.
You live the system every day, you want to provide the best care for your patients and you know where improvements are needed. Let me know, let your Congressperson know because democracy works better when we all participate.