After a long decade of struggle, the stars have aligned for telemedicine, according to Roy Schoenberg, MD, CEO and co-founder of telehealth technology and services vendor American Well. And the understanding and acceptance of providers, payers and patients have united to the point where the electronic delivery of healthcare is poised to become part of the norm.
“First, medical authorities, policymakers, and healthcare’s movers and shakers have acknowledged that delivering healthcare through technology can be valuable and safe; that has been the war zone for the last 10 years of telehealth,” Schoenberg said. “Medical boards and medical associations were hesitant about embracing telehealth; physicians were concerned about diminishing the relationship they have with patients. But the experiences with telehealth during the last couple of years have been reassuring, and telehealth increasingly has become one of the ways physicians interact with patients.”
Second, insurance companies that while label American Well technology including Anthem, United Health Group and several of the big Blues have finally begun to take the stance that, like in any other industry, digital mechanisms are here to stay and will be a major part of the industry’s future; as a result, payers are getting on top of telehealth and discovering how to conduct such care safely, Schoenberg said.
“Payers are understanding that the efficiencies and even the humanitarian value of allowing healthcare to be delivered in this manner are overwhelming,” he added. “If you can shift healthcare via the internet to more private home care settings, for example, you not only are saving costs of emergency room visits and inpatient stays, you are changing how and when appropriate healthcare can be rendered. Telehealth, for instance, can have a very deep impact on how chronic patients are managed.”
And third, enough time has passed that telemedicine technology vendors have gained the experience – and learned lessons from mistakes – so that the vendors are completely capable of providing safe and comprehensive care via technology, Schoenberg said.
“Vendors have made corrections to the patient experience and physician usability, for example, and have learned how to foster intimacy in these kinds of healthcare encounters,” he explained. “Between the adoption of electronic delivery as a valid way of doing medicine, the payment structure, and all of the factors that affect the physician-patient experience, the stars have aligned to cause what we see today, which is a booming market.”
What’s more, telemedicine tools and practices are becoming more embedded into the routine delivery of care among providers that also white label American Well services such as Cleveland Clinic, Community Health System, Intermountain, Miami Children’s Hospital, Providence Health System and others -- even employers are getting into the act, such as clients Oracle and Honeywell.
So what are the next steps? Schoenberg points in two directions.
“From the patient standpoint, we will see very quickly the transition of telehealth from just the myopic quick urgent care example of finding a physician to prescribe antibiotics to something that envelops all of healthcare, especially patients who need serious longitudinal care and frequent interaction with physicians, which increasingly is tied into things like accountable care organizations,” Schoenberg said. “We will see telehealth serving as a part of the overall relationship with patients.”
Schoenberg said American Well today is seeing provider organization clients developing telehealth programs around things like heart disease and autism, and that this sort of care will become the prevailing way healthcare executives and providers think of telehealth.
“No longer just the mother with a child in a stormy night who needs to see a physician kind of stuff,” he added. “Telehealth for ongoing clinical relationships will become the avalanche of this technology.”
On the other end of the spectrum, at the national level, Schoenberg said another next step in the evolution of telemedicine will be the realization of benefits derived from the notion that healthcare can be extended through technology so that patients are no longer married to a facility.
“If we bring together organizations that represent demand for healthcare and allow them to electronically interact with care delivery organizations, then that will not be unlike what online retail has done to the retail industry – we will be able to expand on how healthcare is being rendered and where it is being made available,” Schoenberg concluded. “This is a national play for the delivery of real-time healthcare that is embraced by the provider and the payer brands that will be available wherever the internet goes. That is how Amazon has rewritten the retail industry.”