It’s hard to remember, but there was once a time when we just used our phones to talk. These days, we use smartphones for everything from controlling the thermostat in our living room when we are out and about, navigating the best way home and ordering a ride to the airport. We do everything with our phones (sometimes even, make calls!), so it’s no surprise that the ability to communicate with doctors is also creeping its way onto our smartphone’s capabilities. Using HIPPA-compliant video or texting technology, doctors – including surgeons – can now provide patients with quality care, without having to see them in person.
Telemedicine: An Untapped Frontier
It sounds like a totally modern phenomenon, but Telemedicine is nothing new. It’s actually been around for decades in one form or another, such as a 1970’s partnership between the Indian Health Services and NASA (yes, that NASA) that provided Native Americans on the Papago Reservation in Arizona and orbiting astronauts with medical care. But it hasn’t exactly disrupted the regular healthcare system. Yet. That could all be about to change as surgeons and patients get more comfortable with digital consults and more services are offered online.
“Direct-to-consumer virtual specialty and chronic care are largely untapped frontiers,” says Emily Zuehlke, Consultant at the Advisory Board, a firm helping healthcare organizations improve their performance.
According to a Virtual Visits Consumer Choice Survey from Advisory Board, 77% of consumers said they would consider seeing a provider virtually—and 19% have already interacted with a healthcare provider online.
In a Field of Dreams “Build it and they will come” sort of way, Advisory Board says the results of the survey suggest the healthcare industry has largely underestimated and, to date, failed to meet consumer interest in virtual care.
The results of the survey reveal why.
Physicians, mistakenly, believe patients only want an in-person relationship with their doctor, which is sweet, but apparently misguided.
Given that people can do almost everything online, having to leave the house, sit in traffic, find parking, sit in a waiting room, and sit, and sit, then do the same in reverse on the way home is increasingly becoming a big ask for what is often a very brief consult.
This is especially true for patients who live in rural areas without easy access to a hospital or physician’s office. For such communities, telemedicine is a potential healthcare gamechanger.
The Surgeon’s Perspective
According to Michael Greiwe, MD, CEO of OrthoLive, an orthopedic telemedicine start-up, over 70% of initial (uncomplicated) orthopedic injuries can be diagnosed via telemedicine, saving a lot of waiting room woes.
|“Telemedicine is the best thing that has happened to orthopedic patients since the advent of joint replacement,” says Greiwe. He explains that over the last 40 years, medicine has become more of a business between doctors and insurance companies. “The forgotten party among all this is the patient. They’ve had to spend less time with the doctor [and] more time in the waiting room…Telemedicine is changing all of that. We are giving patients the convenience that they’ve never had and serving them better.”|
And it’s working. “It’s extremely rare to find patients who don’t like the online experience,” says Greiwe, “especially when they already met the physician in person and the physician-patient relationship has already started.”
Turn On, Log In, Click Out
So how does it work? Take the system run by Michigan Medicine. Forget sitting in a waiting room. Patients choose the 15-minute slot that works best for them. To access the doctor, patients login to the Michigan Medicine online patient portal with a mobile device and click on the Video Visit icon to start their clinic experience. No waiting needed.
The system was introduced in March 2017 and now “eClinics” are being used in gastroenterology, urology and general surgery divisions.
The post-op service is available (as are “traditional” follow-ups) for patients who have undergone “uncomplicated procedures” that have demonstrably low complication rates.
Millennials: Top Digital Patients
Unsurprisingly, Millennials are the most pro-telecare. In a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 40% of Millennials reported that telemedicine is an extremely important option. This compares to 27% among Gen Xers and 19% for Boomers.
Part of the reason for the slow uptake is that patients just aren’t sure what can and can’t be done remotely. The Advisory Board survey revealed only 9% of potential patients had no concerns about going digital. Twenty-one percent of respondents were concerned with care quality, followed by the provider not being able to diagnose or treat them virtually (19%), meaning they would have to go to the physical clinic anyway.
While Greiwe says it’s rare to find patients who don’t love the online experience, he admits that there are those with reservations. Something he tends to see when patients meet their doctor for the first time online. “Younger patients seem less bothered by this,” he says, “but when we started “direct-to-consumer” sales for new patients, we found that there were less interested parties than if the diagnosis had already been established.”
The Role of Telemedicine in the Future
As patients’ acceptance and desire for virtual healthcare continues, expect more doctors to get on board. To help make this a reality, an increasing number of medical schools and teaching hospitals are including telemedicine in their curriculum.
To prepare future physicians to use telemedicine effectively, a growing number of medical schools and teaching hospitals are including it in classroom and clinical instruction. According to AAMC data, telemedicine was a topic (required or elective) at 84 medical schools during the 2016–2017 academic year, up from 57 schools (about 41%) in 2013-2014.
While the in-office consult isn’t going away, yet, telemedicine is beginning to take some of the strain out of seeing a doctor.