AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


Telehealth: Impacting the Practice of Primary Care

Hundreds of employers of all sizes are contracting directly or through their insurers with telehealth providers to cut medical costs and give workers 24-hour access to doctors and nurse practitioners. Recently, Beth Ferrin’s 9-year-old son came home with a swollen throat and fever. It was after dinner, so she flipped open her laptop and dialed into LiveHealth Online, a service offered by her insurer, WellPoint, (WLP) that connects patients with doctors via video calls. After a quick diagnosis of strep infection, a prescription for an antibiotic was called in to a pharmacy near Ferrin’s home in Bellbrook, Ohio. Her other options would have been to see a doctor in the morning or risk a long wait at an urgent care facility. Beth’s willingness to seek treatment for her son via telecommunication technology counters some telemedicine critic’s prediction that patient insistence on face to face encounters with their physicians would be a significant barrier to remote medical care’s rapid expansion. Now it would appear that barrier was overstated and, in part, has been overcome. 

But some very legitimate concerns continue to exist among physicians about the safety and effectiveness of remote medical care. When asked about the throat infection treatment of Ferrin’s son, Richard Rosenfeld, chairman of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said: “The only way to diagnose strep is with a test. Best practices say you can’t just throw an antibiotic at somebody.” He says there’s only so much a doctor can tell without an examination performed in-person and telemedicine visits could result in unnecessary medication. But Telemedicine care works well for treating common conditions such as colds, flu, pink eye, and sprains, providers say. 

The widespread use of camera-equipped devices has made remote medical connections easier, and high-definition video often provides enough detail for medical professionals to make diagnoses. The growth of Telemedicine has been spurred in part by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is funneling more patients into a system plagued by physician shortages. By 2020 the U.S. will have 91,500 fewer doctors than needed. The American Association of Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will face a shortage of 46,000 primary care doctors by 2020, equivalent to one-quarter of everyone practicing in that category today. Telehealth providers say they help make up for this shortfall by aiding doctors in delivering services more efficiently.

In response to concerns about the appropriateness of remote diagnosis and treatment, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) is developing an accreditation program for telehealth providers and a bill introduced in Congress last year by Representatives Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) would create federal telemedicine standards. Meanwhile, Telehealth companies are reporting double-digit revenue growth and attracting high-profile investors. MDLive CEO Randy Parker says. “Within the next few years, no consumer will even remember not being able to connect to their providers through telehealth.”


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