The future of health care – Telemedicine

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Whereas COVID-19 has dealt a mighty blow to economies, lives and the capacity of health care systems, it has also changed the way we offer and consume medical services. Telemedicine — where physicians serve patients remotely — has firmly planted its flag on the U.S. health care landscape.

Why? It’s convenient. It’s cost-effective. It offers an opportunity to improve service capacity of hospitals.

“People can now call their doctor and receive a consultation, or talk to a nurse, and most health insurances will cover the charges” said Dr. Uzma Raja, systems and technology department chair and Gayle Parks Professor in the Harbert College of Business, who has long researched telemedicine’s trends, popularity and capabilities. “In the past, policies and regulations were a barrier to the adoption of telemedicine. I believe that the new policies in light of COVID-19 might help us move faster towards the adoption of telemedicine.”

Telemedicine is best suited for residents in rural areas, eliminating long drives to urban health care centers. Basic information and tests are recorded at local clinics and forwarded to physicians, with time allotted for phone consultation. But was it utilized enough? No … but it’s growing.

“When analyzing the trends of utilization of telemedicine, we see a significant positive shift,” Raja said. “In the month of December 2019, only 821 telemedicine related claims were filed in Alabama. Fast forward to May 2020 … we had 109,888 claims for more than 64,000 unique patients. Even with the relaxation in the in-person clinic assistance, we see a continued usage of telemedicine with more than 72,000 claims from 45,000 patients processed through Medicaid in August (2020).”

Raja said that one of the past critical challenges to telemedicine adoption has been patient acceptance of this method of service delivery. “Some rural patients were making longer drives to visit their doctor in-person rather than use telemedicine,” Raja said. “Warming up to the use of new technology takes time. However, it seems like COVID-19 might have involuntarily forced patients to use telemedicine, and patients are now discovering the benefits of consuming technology-based health services. This trend could fundamentally change the deployment of health care, especially to the rural communities.”

Dr. Rafay Ishfaq, the W. Allen Reed Associate Professor in supply chain management at the Harbert College of Business, said whereas telemedicine plays a large role in bridging the logistics gap within the health care supply chain, it’s also helping already overburdened hospitals increase their capacity to provide health care.

“What COVID-19 has done is expose the operational limitations within the health care system,” Ishfaq said. “With an aging population disproportionally impacted by COVID-19, there has been a substantial additional burden on available capacity. At one end of the spectrum, we have the option to invest a lot of money in building more hospitals, increasing the size of waiting rooms or increasing the number of hospital beds. Or … maybe we can invest in an alternate method of delivering health care where capacity can be enhanced without extensive investments in the physical infrastructure.

“If we invest in access to broadband in rural communities, the enhanced infrastructure could support the integration of technology-based health care delivery systems. Even in the areas with a dense urban population, we would be able to extend the capacity of health care systems without excessive and prohibitive financial investments.”

The impacts of COVID-19 on local hospitals’ health care capacities reveals that something must be done. Can telemedicine hold the key?

“Yes, because physicians can reach out to customers, or patients, that are far beyond the reach of their hospitals,” Ishfaq added. “I think COVID-19 has become like a pseudo-social experiment for telemedicine. There’s an entire population that needs routine health care services, and there’s not enough capacity in the hospitals to be able to accommodate this growing need.”

As the acceptance — and need — for telemedicine grows, so will its capabilities, Raja said. “I see a bright future for telemedicine as long as the policies and technologies can keep up with the demand,” she said. “We continually expect faster, more reliable and easily accessible technology which can become available to health care patients through smart and wearable technology. As this technology proliferates, it could result in telemedicine becoming embedded into our daily lives.”

Raja and Ishfaq’s research on telemedicine, “Bridging the Healthcare Access Divide: A Strategic Planning Model for Rural Telemedicine Network,” was published by Decision Sciences.