Telehealth: The balance between access and ethics
By the end of the year, nearly one million patients will open up a laptop or pull out their cell phone when they have a cold, ear infection, rash or depression. They will describe their symptoms to a physician and many will get prescriptions for short-term treatment. They can get medical care in the middle of the afternoon or at 2 a.m., from the comfort of their home.
This is a viable option for patients thanks to telemedicine, the use of which has grown dramatically in recent years. For patients, it may mean increasing convenience and access, but questions remain among providers as to how and when telemedicine should be used.
There is little question that telemedicine can be an effective way to improve access to care for patients in rural areas or allow physicians to consult with other providers on challenging cases. American Well, a Boston-based telehealth service provider, notes that 67% of healthcare providers are using, or planning soon to use telemedicine services.
Furthermore, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) estimates patients will take part in 800,000 telehealth consultations in 2015. Consulting firm Towers Watson predicted last year that by the end of 2015, more than one-third of employers will be offering telemedicine to their workers.
“This is a new area of dealing with patients and we are just seeing the tip of iceberg,” says Jonathan Linkous, MPA, chief executive officer of the ATA. “It is important to regulate it and do it right, but you can’t stop it.”