Momentum for telemedicine continues to build

Last spring, I wrote in this space that telemedicine was poised for a mainstream breakthrough. While that prediction hasn't exactly come to fruition--according to the American Telemedicine Association, as of Jan. 3, 2014, 13 states still have yet to propose any sort of telemedicine legislation or even examine its effectiveness via a taskforce--I still believe that significant groundwork has been laid since that time.

For instance, just last week, parity laws mandating private coverage for telemedicine went into effect in two states: Missouri and Montana. Similar legislation went into effect last fall in the District of Columbia and last summer in Mississippi and New Mexico, and is scheduled to go into effect a year from now in Arizona.

In addition, Florida state Rep. Travis Cummings is expected to file telemedicine parity legislation this week.

Parity legislative efforts aside, a federal bill introduced to Congress last month--the Telehealth Modernization Act--seeks to establish a federal definition of telehealth that would clear up confusion from myriad state policies. The bill is based on legislation already passed in California.

"Telehealth is a major contributing factor to increased health care quality, convenience, and lower costs," said Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who introduced the bill. "However, there currently are 50 separate sets of rules as to what type of care can be provided. This often leaves both providers and patients in a state of uncertainty."

Need even more proof? As part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last week by President Obama, service members transitioning into civilian life are eligible to receive 180 days of health insurance coverage for services provided through telehealth. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) pushed for the bill, specifically citing its importance in helping service members receive treatment for Post Traumatic Stress.

"All too often, symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress do not appear until eight to 10 months after deployment," Thompson said. "This reform will help those who serve our country transition to civilian life without the burden or fear of losing access to critical services at a time when they are needed most."

A recent report by Research and Markets predicted an 18.5 percent growth rate in the global telemedicine market through 2018. The shortage of physicians in rural areas, a higher prevalence of patients with chronic diseases and the continuous development of telecommunications capabilities are expected to be primary drivers of that growth.

What's more, in a recent commentary published to The Sacramento Bee, Stanford medical student Akhilesh Pathipati wrote that telemedicine is "natural" for the next generation of physicians. "Students currently in the medical education pipeline started using smartphones and Skype in high school," Pathipati said. "The same can be said for many patients. Telemedicine can translate that familiarity with communications technology into a meaningful doctor-patient relationship."

Pathipati is right. What's important is not that telemedicine use isn't as widespread as I had envisioned eight months ago, but rather that it continues to be recognized as a viable treatment option and that momentum keeps building to ensure that it is covered as such. - Dan @FierceHealthIT