Unfortunately, outdated policy and a lack of political will is holding back the widespread deployment of telehealth. Barriers include insufficient federal funding for telehealth infrastructure, inconsistent licensing requirements, lack of broadband internet in rural communities and needless bureaucracy. There is no silver bullet to solve these challenges, but the potential for telehealth to improve the lives of individuals in rural and underserved areas necessitates that we try.
I represent California's 36th Congressional District, which is one of the most economically and geographically diverse in the country. Before I was elected, I worked as an emergency medicine physician, and I saw how physician shortages, lack of health literacy and proximity to a hospital determined a patient's access to healthcare. Telehealth can bridge those gaps.
Take one example: Tony, a retired farmer who is on Medicare, has a new and suspicious lesion on his face. A community health worker refers him to a primary-care provider, who tells Tony he needs to see a dermatologist. Right now, Tony would have to find a dermatologist—who could be hours away—and take an entire day to get the care he needs.
Telehealth, on the other hand, could connect Tony with a dermatologist via videoconference in that same exam room, who could then work with Tony's doctor to help screen for cancer and manage treatment.
That's the ideal scenario—but there are many obstacles that get in the way. First, Tony's clinic may not have adequate broadband internet. Second, Medicare does not cover remote patient monitoring or “store and forward,” which are necessary for transmitting personal health data. Third, community health workers are not an approved telehealth “practitioner” under Medicare. And fourth, Medicare typically does not allow providers to bill for multiple visits by a patient in one day.
Bottom line, outdated policies and insufficient infrastructure mean individuals like Tony are going without the care they need.
To overcome these barriers, we need a robust, coordinated plan that facilitates the expansion of telehealth services. Medicare should reward—not punish—telehealth's efficiency and affordability. Regulations should help doctors access their patient's medical records. And public investment should enable hospitals to purchase technology that saves money for patients and providers.
Telehealth is the future of medicine. It is an opportunity to expand healthcare access to improve patient outcomes, and the government must be an active partner to pave the way for this transformation. Telehealth has spread its wings; intelligent policy and smart investment will help it soar.