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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Will Telehealth Become The New Wave In Providing Health Care?

Most people are probably not even aware of the term "telehealth." What is it and how does it fit into the future of providing affordable health care for America's millions? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines it as "the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care."

Long-distance health care? It sounds like a futuristic science fiction movie. But telehealth has been around for awhile. In fact, 15 states have legislation authorizing health care providers to reimburse on claims submitted for health services provided by telehealth. The California Telehealth Network has established more than 350 telehealth sites in the state. The main difference with telehealth is that services are rendered long distance through the Internet,videoconferencing, media streaming and wireless communications.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services actually has a department called the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth whose purpose is to encourage the use of technology to deliver health care. It is part of the Office of Rural Health Policy. The objective is to use technology to provide health care to underserved, vulnerable, and special needs population areas and reach patients in rural areas who might not otherwise be able to receive the health treatment they need.

However, one reason why telehealth is getting more attention now is directly related to the Affordable Care Act (ACT). Millions more Americans will be covered by affordable health insurance through the mandates established by ACT, which means more people visiting physicians and hospitals. Add to this the current and projected decline in the number of medical students pursuing careers in primary health care--a shortage of 39,000 by the year 2020, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians--and telehealth seems more like a practical solution to the problem rather than a sci fi movie script.

Some of the challenges involved in telehealth include billing procedures, physician license issues, the legalities of prescribing medicines without actually seeing the patient, and finding physicians who want to provide online medical services. To be clear, telehealth is not meant to replace one-on-one patient consultation. It is an alternative to diagnosing and prescribing treatment for common medical conditions, particularly for patients who are well known by the attending physician. But it may be well worth considering as a good option to filling the gap on healthcare services needed going forward.

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