How telemedicine is transforming health care: reducing costs, expanding care

A couple of stories on telemedicine caught our attention this week. The first one, published in The Lens, addresses an important issue in Washington state, the coming shortage of health care professionals. The second, in The American Interest, tackles another critical issue, the rising cost of health care. Telemedicine promises to play a key role in solving both problems.

Brittan Jenkins reports in The Lens on the Legislature’s efforts to promote telemedicine

Over the next 10 to 15 years, Washington is expected to face a shortage of 3,000 to 4,000 doctors and 24,000 registered nurses. Already, patients are overusing emergency rooms to compensate for lack of access to primary care physicians. State lawmakers hope the expansion of telehealth will make care more affordable and accessible.

After a 2015 state law that expanded potential coverage, Washington lawmakers this year directed a stakeholder panel to begin developing recommendations on an important missing policy piece, reimbursement rates for telemedicine, a key component of telehealth.

The technology allows for greater access to care for patients in non-traditional settings and in rural communities.

“It’s not intended for emergency services or a cure all for everything. It’s for the smaller things…more routine illnesses,” said Senator Jan Angel (R-26), a member of the Senate Health Care Committee.

It’s new enough that payment for services is still being worked out.

Washington state legislators have recognized the importance of telemedicine. They passed SB 5175 in April of 2015 with bipartisan support, to expand coverage for telemedicine services paid by health plans. However, unlike for in-office visits, the bill doesn’t set a reimbursement rate for telemedicine treatment. The law takes effect January 1, 2017.

To address this shortcoming, legislators passed SB 6519 in March of this year.

The bill establishes a committee to make recommendations on reimbursement and other issues affecting telehealth services.

Walter Russell Mead writes in The American Interest that telemedicine may be a game-changing technology.

The news that telemedicine is beginning to have a bigger impact is a much bigger story than many think. And watching the development of this promising field is important—not just because of what it means for American health care, but because of what it means about America’s future. Advances in telemedicine, small and marginal though they may appear at any given time, have the potential to be even more transformative and even more positive than the advances in oil and gas extraction that led to the fracking revolution.

It’s all about what health care reform was supposed to address. Remember “bending the cost curve?” It’s a big deal.

The make-or-break question for America’s financial future is the cost of health care. If health care costs were under control, many of the biggest financial problems facing the federal government and state and local governments would diminish. Social Security, for all its challenges, is a problem the U.S. can live with; Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ health costs are another story.

But the huge tax that America’s heavy health costs levy on the economy isn’t just in the form of government deficits. Rising health care costs help make infrastructure in the U.S. much more expensive than in other countries, thanks to the cost of health insurance for workers.

Mead’s article pegged off this story in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a good overview of the current reality, potential future and some of the problems that must be addressed to make the promise a reality. 

We’ve written of the urban-rural divide and the need to achieve shared prosperity throughout the state. Technologies that can bridge the divide, improve health care and reduce costs will be critical to expanding opportunity in our state.