The number of mobile apps on the market has skyrocketed as people look to technology to make their increasingly busy lives more efficient. This trend spans all industries, and healthcare is no exception. According to Grand View Research, the global telemedicine market is expected to reach $113.1 billion by 2025 and according to Business of Apps, 66 of the 100 largest hospitals in the United States have some type of mobile app for their patients. Private companies and individual providers are also jumping on the bandwagon, offering telemedicine apps like Amwell, PlushCare, and Dermio. The unique problem that healthcare providers face, however, is that the nature of their business can make users especially apprehensive about letting technology stand in for the traditional team of humans. Healthcare information is particularly sensitive and the work often requires a significant level of skill, training and empathy. Thus, user adoption levels are disproportionately low for the number of apps being offered by providers and insurance companies. That being said, there are too many upsides to the technology to ignore, and we believe that mobile apps, with and without the addition of artificial intelligence components, will be indispensable to the future of healthcare.
What is Telemedicine and What are the Purported Benefits to Patients, Payers, and Providers?
Telemedicine is healthcare delivered remotely, whether it be by telephone, mobile apps, video conferencing, or some other means of electronic exchange. It encompasses several different services, including remote patient monitoring (vital signs collected remotely via a wearable device on the patient), store-and-forward technology (x-rays and other types of images and data can be transmitted to multiple locations for evaluation) and interactive telemedicine (real-time communication between patient and provider and/or virtual assistant). The benefits of this type of technology include:
- Accessibility: Rural patients often have to travel long distances to seek care, even if it’s simply in pursuit of a primary care provider or a walk-in clinic. Specialists might not be available in their area at all. Telemedicine can eliminate the burden of travel by effectively bringing the providers into their own home via technology. Where one used to be limited by proximity, now patients can seek out the best providers for them, regardless of location. Accessibility is also broadened for homebound patients who may have previously relied on the relatively few providers available to make home visits.
- Cost Effectiveness: For patients, telemedicine eliminates the cost of lost pay from taking time off of work as well as the cost of travel. Some apps offered by insurance companies, like the one by Kaiser Permanente, even eliminate the copay that normally accompanies an office visit. For providers, telemedicine reduces no-shows (a common and costly problem for most providers), retains patients that may have moved to another practice due to physical proximity, saves money on overhead due to the ability to shorten office hours, improves documentation on off-hours calls to lessen the likelihood of malpractice issues, and improves patient protocol compliance with the ability to make more frequent check-ins (which also helps prevent readmissions that cost hospitals big time when it comes to Medicare reimbursements under our fee-for-value system). For payers, telemedicine keeps patients out of high-cost emergency rooms and urgent care centers, while also helping patients with chronic illness manage their conditions better, leading to fewer catastrophic incidents.
- Privacy: Some fields, like psychiatry, psychology, and sexual health, are a bit more sensitive by nature. Often times patients will avoid getting the help that they need because they are embarrassed or fear judgment from the provider. Telemedicine affords patients a bit more anonymity than a face to face interaction, which could help patients make the leap toward getting the care that they need.
What Are the Barriers to Adoption?
- Laws: Telemedicine is still a burgeoning industry, and as with most others in that category, the laws often fail to keep up with the technology. States have been put in charge of making their own telemedicine laws, so while every state is different, the pain of credentialing and the limits of licensure can stand in the way of letting telemedicine truly take off in any or all of its forms.
- Private Insurer Reimbursement Issues: While Medicare in most cases recognizes telemedicine as a comparable substitute to traditional, in-person care and reimburses providers as such, some private insurers lag behind. The threat of non-reimbursement can steer providers away from utilizing telemedicine.
- Generational Differences: Young people today are as comfortable or even more comfortable conversing via text as they are talking in person. The jump to chatting with doctors in lieu of a traditional visit is a small one. On the other hand, the elderly patients that make up a large percentage of the healthcare base are less comfortable with technology and texting as a substitute for talking. They may not take to the telemedicine tools as readily as the younger generations, which limits ROI for providers that want to implement telemedicine technology.
- Lack of Broadband Access: The same rural population that benefits the most from telemedicine is also the group with the lowest rates of broadband access. Without connectivity, telemedicine ceases to function, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. The continuous effort to expand and improve broadband access in rural areas will be paramount to the success of telemedicine.
- Cost: Custom software can be expensive, and the upfront costs of implementation along with the ongoing cost of maintenance can be a deterrent, particularly for small businesses and individual providers.
How Can Telemedicine Be Implemented into Your Business?
There are two major types of telemedicine technology to consider when deciding on the best fit for your particular business.
- Live Chat With an Actual Doctor – Live chatting with an actual human doctor offers your patients many of the benefits of an in-person visit without the nuisance of travel or sacrificed work hours. Doctors can diagnose conditions and prescribe treatment with the help of uploaded pictures, a text or video interview of the patient, and stored patient health history. Because it’s an actual doctor on the other end, there are high ongoing costs associated with this method in the form of a regular salary in addition to the costs of building and implementing the requisite secure messaging software.
- Chatbot – Artifical intelligence is on the rise across all industries as a way to streamline contact with consumers. Chatbots are being researched as virtual healthcare assistants, and the progress has led to an anticipated $1.5 billion market for them by 2024 according to Global Market Insights. Their intended uses are for everything from simple tasks like reminding a patient to take his/her medication to the much more complex task of counseling a suicidal individual. Obviously, there are a vast number of concerns with chatbots handling nuanced tasks like suicide intervention, so a lot more research will need to be done before they can become mainstream. With the chatbot method, back-end algorithms and business logic must be impeccable and data sets must be gigantic to ensure sound functioning. When patient lives hang in the balance, there is no room for error. The upside to this method is convenience (they can operate 24/7) and ongoing cost (sparing the expense of high-cost healthcare professionals). The cost of implementation is potentially higher than the live chat with a doctor method due to the complicated business logic and data set required.
The benefits of telemedicine will only grow over time as an already short-staffed healthcare industry fights to keep up with demand for care. The technology can be implemented in various combinations of artificial intelligence and human telecommunication that best fit the unique needs of all the various types of providers in the industry, nearly ensuring a great return on investment. If you see an opportunity for telemedicine in your own business, reach out to your preferred custom software company to see what solutions they can offer. You’ll be ahead of the game and well on your way to improved efficiency.