Is the telehealth sector headed for a bubble?

Telemedicine
Is telehealth headed for a bubble?

There’s a lot of buzz around telehealth—but with conflicting studies, chaotic state laws and regulations and uneven access to specialists who can answer patients’ video calls, is the sector on the verge of a bubble?

It’s hard to say. For every good news story there seems to be one that cautions it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

On the one hand, for example, some states have made it easier for physicians to practice telemedicine and provide broader coverage for patients. On the other, much of the country remains stagnant when it comes to regulations that would help expand the practice.

And individual programs have experienced mixed success.

In Los Angeles, one pilot found that electronic consults dramatically improved access to care and shortened the wait time to see a specialist. In fact, a quarter of referred consultations were resolved without the patient having to visit the specialist in person—a result that would seemingly drive costs down.

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But another study suggested that telehealth visits do not necessarily replace in-person care. It found 90% of visits represented new utilization, meaning it is not necessarily driving down healthcare costs.

An article in Managed Healthcare Magazine ran down several studies in an attempt to sort out the conflicting information. The author’s conclusion: It might be time for a telehealth reality check. The article also offered up some examples of provider organizations that are using telehealth.

Meanwhile, Mintz-Levin’s healthcare law group said it saw an “unprecedented number of state legislatures enacting detailed telemedicine statutes” in 2016 and early 2017.

State legislatures have passed laws establishing detailed telemedicine standards in Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina and West Virginia, the firm noted in a recent blog post.

RELATED: Telehealth’s economic impact could have broad reach in rural communities

“Many of these states' boards of medicine either had no standards governing telemedicine or fairly restrictive standards. By passing such laws, the state legislatures have put pressure on state boards of medicine to either issue new rules or amend existing rules to comply with these newly passed telemedicine standards,” the post noted.

“This is an important development and signals that state lawmakers are prepared to embrace telemedicine as a safe and cost-effective way to provide medical services to patients, even if state regulatory boards are not.”