Telemedicine on track for a mainstream breakthrough

All signs point to telemedicine entering the mainstream healthcare industry. Maybe it's fresh on my mind because the American Telemedicine Association's annual conference--which took place in Austin, Texas this year--just ended, but there's more to it than that.

Since the beginning of the year, telemedicine has been a hot topic. More and more states are pushing for coverage; according to ATA President-Elect Ed Brown, 18 states currently have laws requiring private insurers to pay for such coverage, while another 30 are developing similar legislation.

One of those 18--Maryland--just this month signed four telemedicine bills into law, including one that mandates the creation of a study focusing on how telemedicine can be used to reduce healthcare disparities and address primary care and specialty care doctor shortages.

It's about time.

Study after study supports the notion that telemedicine and virtual care efforts are effective. For instance, research published this month in the journal Telemedicine and e-Health determined that telehealth chronic disease management programs can lead to improvements in self-efficacy, health behaviors and health status for chronically ill patients.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, meanwhile, who presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in March, found that a telemedicine program was able to increase access to stroke care by 40 percent for patients in Oregon. Additional telestroke research out of the Mayo Clinic published last December found that hospitals participating in hub-and-spoke networks saved more than $100,000 each in increased discharges.

Sure, there's also been some research that went against that grain published this year. One study, in particular, found that telehealth did not improve the quality of life for patients with chronic conditions.

That study, however, was an offshoot of the Whole System Demonstrator project conducted in the U.K. Studies from that project already have shown that telemedicine helped to cut patient deaths by 45 percent.

Rashid L. Bashshur, director of telemedicine at the University of Michigan Health System, said in a commentary published this month in Telemedicine & e-Health that now is the time to establish telemedicine as "integral" to care efforts, particularly in conjunction with other information technologies like electronic and personal health records.

I could not agree more. Given present-day technology and the data we have available at our fingertips about telemedicine's effectiveness, the days where virtual care was considered niche should be over. It's effective and necessary, particularly for patients in need who don't have a whole lot of nearby options. - Dan @FierceHealthIT