Use of telemedicine results in 'modest' travel cost savings for VA

While the use of telemedicine by providers in the Veterans Affairs healthcare system can significantly cut travel distance and time for patients, the monetary savings are only "modest," according to a new study published online in Telemedicine and e-Health.

The VA, the authors note, provides reimbursement payments for travel to qualifying patients, costs anticipated to reach roughly $1 billion in 2015.

The use of telemedicine, they say, led to per-visit savings of 145 miles and 142 minutes, respectively. Travel payment savings for Year 1 of the study--which examined all telemedicine visits at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, from 2005 to 2013--were $18,555.

By 2013, the final year of the study, an increase in telemedicine volume caused savings to jump to $63,804 annually. While the increase was significant, the savings represented only about 3.5 percent of the total travel pay reimbursements allocated that year.

The figures likely remained modest, the authors say, because of the ratio of telemedicine visits to face-to-face visits, and because most patients did not qualify for the travel reimbursement. However, as adoption of telemedicine continues to grow, the authors predict larger savings.

What's more, the authors say that more new patient visits were "shunted to telemedicine" than follow-up visits.

"This suggests that telemedicine in this context is useful for triage, after which patients are either redirected for further face-to-face visits or no follow-up is needed," they say. "Although the average number of telemedicine encounters in our study was 3.1 per patient, the number of visits did range up to 63, indicating that telemedicine was a viable long-term care strategy for at least certain individuals."

Despite the potential of telemedicine, patients responding to a TechnologyAdvice survey in July said they would be less likely to use such services compared to an in-person visit with a physician. Patient distrust in telemedicine is, perhaps, the biggest issue that telemedicine vendors and providers will have to overcome, according to TechnologyAdvice Managing Editor Cameron Graham.

A bill introduced by House lawmakers in March would allow health professionals working for the VA to practice telemedicine across state borders.

To learn more:
- here's the study's abstract