Telemedicine fills care gaps

Like a growing number of health insurers, Philadelphia-based Independence Blue Cross has embraced telemedicine because of its potential to connect patients to convenient care, Senior Network Medical Director Ron Brooks tells FierceHealthPayer.

Ron Brooks

“We look at telemedicine as another tool for patients to gain access into the healthcare system,” he says, allowing them to consult a doctor--and have that doctor see what they are talking about--instead of putting off an office visit and potentially allowing a condition to worsen.

Independence contracts with a vendor that gives patients video access to a network of board-certified doctors, Brooks says, and it also offers primary care doctors the option to use a HIPAA-compliant telemedicine tool of their choice.

The biggest regulatory hurdle for telemedicine right now, according to Brooks, is the restrictions on licensing across state borders. “That’s where the national carriers come in, they’ve solved this problem by having licensed physicians in all states who are available and their computer processes figure that out,” Brooks says.

But providers also appreciate the ability to choose a telemedicine tool because those who see benefits in the technology can experiment with it and get reimbursed in the process.

“It allows them to get extra income for some of the things that they’re doing now anyway without the visual component--they’re still providing care over the telephone, taking time with the patient,” he says.

Currently, most members use telemedicine for after-hours or weekend appointments, when traveling, when they need a quick consultation about a health issue they’re concerned about or when they know what’s wrong with them and need a particular prescription, Brooks says.

But down the road, as peripherals start getting added to smartphones, providers will have more diagnostic tools such as the ability to take a patient’s blood pressure, he adds. That will let providers gather more information about homebound patients they are treating or conduct a more complete exam of an elderly patient instead of requiring him or her to come in for an office visit.

Though some have expressed skepticism about the value of telemedicine, Brooks says the benefits of the technology far outweigh any negatives. Many probably had similar reservations about doctors starting to consult with patients over the phone, he notes.

Telemedicine simply puts more information in clinicians’ hands, he says. “And that should only lead to improved care in the long run.”

Telemedicine fills care gaps