Emergency departments may be the next frontier in telehealth services

A New York City hospital sees a surprisingly bright future for telehealth services in a previously unexplored location: the emergency room.

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine’s Express Care program sends patients through standard emergency department triage, siphoning off those with minor injuries or non-life-threatening symptoms who can opt to see a remote physician via video conference, the Wall Street Journal reports. Patients connect to doctors from private rooms, with nurse practitioners or physician assistants on hand as necessary to perform routine procedures. A printer in the room allows doctors to write prescriptions and provide patients with discharge papers.

The rising popularity of telehealth services has generally been linked to its ability to replace in-person visits to a physician’s office, an approach that expands access to care, especially in remote areas. But telehealth continues to battle lower reimbursement at the state and federal levels. 

RELATED: ATA says states' telemedicine progress a mixed bag

The technology’s use in the emergency room avoids both the reimbursement issue and concerns about quality of care, according to the WSJ. Since patients present themselves in an emergency room setting, they have access to clinical staff and all the medical resources present in a hospital. Likewise, most insurance companies cover Express Care visits as they would a standard emergency department visit, since patients are screened and triaged.

Rahul Sharma, M.D., emergency physician-in-chief at Weill Cornell, says the system's biggest advantage lies in its ability to reduce wait times, an issue he says is “the number-one complaint of patients in the emergency room." The average time spent in the hospital's ED dropped by more than half, to between 35 and 40 minutes, after the hospital implemented the Express Care program.

That statistic has grabbed the attention of more than a dozen other hospitals and healthcare systems that have contacted Sharma about the program, including Ali Raja, vice chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Ten years from now, tele-emergency medicine will be the standard around the country,” he told the newspaper.