With a few strokes of a pen on May 22, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley contributed to medical history. The document he signed into law made the Free State the 14th in the U.S. to require that insurance companies cover virtual doctor’s appointments.
More specifically, the law, titled Health Insurance – Coverage for Services Delivered Through Telemedicine, mandates that insurers, nonprofit health service plans, and health maintenance organizations provide coverage for telemedicine services and prohibits them from denying coverage solely because services are provided via telecommunication and not by other means. Patients will still have to pay the same deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance as they would with a regular visit and coverage won’t be provided for services that would not be covered in person, but the law certainly marks an important step in the adoption of an important medical innovation nonetheless.
In addition to Maryland, the states that have adopted similar laws are California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Virginia. However, not all require that insurance coverage for telemedicine be equal to that provided for in-person health services.
At this point, you might be wondering just what constitutes “telemedicine” and why it’s so important. Well, while there is no universal definition, Maryland law defines a telemedicine service as, “The use of interactive audio, video, or other telecommunications or electronic technology by a licensed health care provider to deliver a health care service within the scope of the health care provider at a site other than the site at which the patient is located.” And as far as importance goes, there are many that feel telemedicine is integral to lowering healthcare costs and improving efficiency in the industry.
The basic theory holds that without the need for patients to actually come into the doctor’s office for quick questions or other matters that can easily be handled without physical contact or equipment, doctors will be able to spend less time with the patients that don’t require much attention and more time with those who truly need it. In other words, doctors will be able to use their limited availability more strategically and provide better care for everyone as a result. In addition, patients will be able to get opinions from doctors much quicker, rather than having to try to schedule an in-office appointment weeks or even months down the road, and this will in turn improve the effectiveness of preventive care. Combined, these things will undoubtedly improve efficiency in the healthcare industry as well as lower costs for all parties.
A prime example of this is the effect of telemedicine technology on Erie, Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent Health System. Not only have readmissions dropped in the system’s 26 facilities throughout the state of Pennsylvania, but the system also recouped the full cost of its investment within two years. What’s more, a study carried out by Geisinger Health Plan, which is also based in Pennsylvania, showed that a home telemonitoring program reduced the rate of readmission for patients with congestive heart failure by 44%.
Leveraging new technology is nothing new for the medical community, which has accounted for many of the biggest innovations in recent history, such as MRI machines and DNA testing. (I can personally attest to the power of crystallized pig bladder in wound care after an incident with a flipped golf cart a few months ago, but that’s a story for another day). While telemedicine might not be quite as groundbreaking as these advances, it certainly seems to be gaining momentum.
It’s not the only medical advance based on new communications technology either. Smartphones are also poised to change the face of medicine and dramatically cut healthcare costs, much like the way we go about making purchases and managing our everyday banking. According to a study conducted by Roger Etner, founder of Recon Analytics, mobile technology will cause a $305.1 billion increase in productivity in the medical industry over the next decade by: 1) reducing travel time & otherwise improving logistics, 2) improving communications 3) enabling faster decision-making, and 4) allowing small businesses to do more.
Ultimately, your head might be spinning with all of this talk about technology, but even for the most technologically inept and change averse among us, it will be interesting to see how new communication technology changes the face of medicine in the coming years. I know I’ll be keeping an especially close eye on how it lessens the load on my wallet!