Like many industries, healthcare is at a crossroads. One critical decision facing practitioners, especially those of us who operate major healthcare systems, is whether to invest more in our bricks-and-mortar operations or increase funding for cutting-edge telehealth information technology solutions.
At Broward Health in Florida, my staff and I ask ourselves constantly: Which path do we take?
The answer is both. While there is no future in which the face-to-face relationship between a patient and doctor does not exist—we will always need facilities—telemedicine's potential is not only blossoming, it's flourishing, even in disciplines that require the closest interactions between patients and doctors. To expand access to care, save patients precious time and money, and improve the quality of care, we all have to think more about telemedicine.
So must the state and federal policymakers who regulate us.
Five years ago, perhaps even to most healthcare providers, telemedicine meant nothing more than sitting in your primary-care doctor's office teleconferencing with a specialty-care physician whose practice was miles away. When I first attended the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society annual conference 10 years ago, there were a few vendors offering telemedicine products. Today, thousands of telemedicine vendors attend the annual gathering.
Telemedicine is much more than e-medical records and video chats; technology is now a vital tool in some of the practice areas thought to be the most hands-on.
For example, telepsychiatry is on the rise. Perhaps no doctor-physician relationship is more intimate than the one between patient and psychiatrist or psychologist, but one of the barriers to accessing mental healthcare for some Americans is the simple notion of sitting face to face with a stranger, pouring out emotions. Telepsychiatry may eliminate that anxiety for some patients—and provide them a path to the quality mental healthcare they so badly need, but might not have sought otherwise.
With the persistent shortage of healthcare practitioners in the U.S., hospitals have also begun to use telemedicine for intensive-care patient management. Tele-intensive-care units allow highly trained critical-care teams to remotely monitor patients in several locations at once. Tele-ICUs can improve patient outcomes, reduce mortality and generate cost savings for patients and hospitals—welcome outcomes in a care area that's not only the costliest, but the one with the highest mortality rate.