Telehealth takes off in rural areas

Competition, policy and rurality all big market influencers

Some 42 percent of U.S. hospitals have adopted telehealth platforms and are using the technology to treat patients, with several factors effecting market changes, according to new report findings.
 
The report — published in February's Health Affairs and conducted by researchers at the Center for Connected Health, University of Michigan and Brigham and Women's Hospital — underscored several telehealth market trends present nationwide. 
 
For one, telehealth adoption numbers are significantly higher at hospitals located in more rural areas compared to urban areas.
 
Adoption also varied on a state by state basis, which researchers attributed to myriad factors including state policies, for instance. Alaska hospitals reported the highest percent of telehealth adoption at 75 percent. Arkansas at 71 percent; South Dakota at 70 percent and Maine at 69 percent were among the top telehealth adopters. 
 
States lagging behind with telehealth included Rhode Island with 0 percent of its hospitals fully adopting platforms and Utah at a paltry 13 percent. 
 
"The highest- and lowest-adopting states all had fairly small populations," wrote University of Michigan's Julia Adler-Milstein; Joseph Kvedar, MD, director at CCH; and Brigham and Women's David W. Bates, in the report. "These facts suggest that factors beyond the number of hospitals in the state, such as state policies, affect the proportion of hospitals that offer telehealth."
 
Researchers also found competition to be a significant market factor. Hospitals in the least competitive markets were half as more likely to move forward with telehealth adoption than hospitals in competitive markets. 
 
"We suspect that a key advantage of telehealth is the ability to support the delivery of more-complex care as well as more-efficient care. The former is likely of particular value to teaching hospitals that may consult on the treatment of patients with complex conditions located in areas with limited access to
specialists," wrote researchers. "The latter may be of particular value to hospitals in more competitive markets that seek technologies to help lower the cost of care delivery, such as teleradiology and eICUs."
 
Policies related to reimbursement were also key, researchers pointed out. More payers are now reimbursing for telehealth services, which is causing an uptick in adoption numbers.  
 
Report authors pointed to adopting broader reimbursement policies, which "may give hospitals more latitude to choose the type of telehealth to pursue and make it more likely that any type of investment in telehealth will pay off for them," they wrote.
 
Today, there are some 10 million Americans using telemedicine, said American Telemedicine Association's CEO Jonathan Linkous, to Healthcare IT News back in November. 
 
"There's a huge change in the number of people that are using telemedicine," Linkous said and that can be attributed to several different factors. One of the biggest, he said, is payers are now paying up. "Ten years ago, almost no one was paying for telemedicine."
 
A July Kalarama industry report echoes similar sentiments: At the macro level, telehealth adoption is exploding. The market has grown from $4.2 billion in 2007 to more than $10 billion in 2012. Analysts project continued sales growth as new payment policies start to take hold and older monitoring equipment is replaced by wireless or remote monitors.