3 must-haves to hit telehealth’s tipping point

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

Remember 2012? That was purported to be the year the Mayans had pinpointed as Earth’s last. It’s also the year some experts had predicted that everyone would get on board with telehealth. That didn’t happen, but this digital tool to deliver medical care has steadily gained momentum. So, seven years later, is medicine finally at the tipping point with telehealth?

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Not quite.

But access to care via telemedicine continues to grow and data shows that telehealth is effective and safe. In addition, millennials—who are digital natives—expect the convenience, said experts gathered for a panel discussion on the topic.

The panelists spoke at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas, the largest conference for health innovation. The AMA, which is focused on making technology an asset in the delivery of care instead of a burden, was an innovation partner at HLTH and shared how the organization is driving the future of digital health.

“I hope there is a day when we come to a conference and we actually just call it health care. The day we stop using telehealth is the day we get to the tipping point, [because] it is fundamentally the way health care is delivered,” said Peter M. Fleischut, MD, senior vice president and chief transformation officer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. The hospital several years ago began to work with ColumbiaDoctors and Weill Cornell Medicine to create a telehealth network that includes 50 telehealth programs and 1,400 physicians.

So, what needs to happen to reach the point where we stop using the word telehealth and just think of it as health care?

Some patients, especially younger ones, are demanding the convenience of being able to see a physician virtually. As that momentum continues to build, telehealth will get closer to just being part of how healthcare is delivered.

“What is interesting, and what will drive the tipping point, is that once people use [telehealth] they are wildly enthusiastic about it,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, which includes more than 400 organizations focused on transforming heath and care through telehealth. “There are so many instances, not just in urgent care, but in chronic care management that it is really improving access, improving quality and making it easy for people to get care when and where they need it.”

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Health care delivery needs to move away from the established silos, said Fay Rotenberg Bush, President of Firefly Health, which uses technology to connect patients with a care team that is able to provide continuous care.

“We need tight integrations with physical places because not everything can be done virtually and we need to be able to send people for follow up care—a strep throat test or a specialist,” she said. But virtual care can be provided in a way where a patient receives high quality care that has continuity, while also providing convenience to the patient and saving the system money, Bush said.

Johnson said “technology needs to do more than replace a face-to-face visit. Technology needs to be used to reimagine care.”

Dr. Fleischut noted it will be important to continue to focus on building relationships between patients and physicians, even if the environment is virtual. “There is a lot of opportunity to change the care model. There are definitely going to be risks and those are risks we need to take,” he said, noting that medicine needs to make sure technology reduces disparities in health care and not add to it.

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For telehealth to reach the tipping point, reimbursements and regulations must better support the effort, panelists agreed. While improvements have been made, more needs to happen.

The Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC), for example, was designed to facilitate the growth of telemedicine while preserving state regulation of medical practice. It appears to be working, as it has issued 6,671 state medical licenses to 4,446 physicians through July 31.