Telemedicine: The Future of Healthcare? By Jonathan Silverman W'19

Smartphone functionality has skyrocketed over the past decade: Snapchat, Uber, celebrities on Instagram, and…sending one’s blood pressure to the doctor?! Yet recently, increasing numbers of US healthcare consumers are pivoting towards services that fulfill their medical needs without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own bedrooms. Drawing upon the convenience, speed, and economic efficiency of the Internet, this range of services – aptly categorized as “telemedicine” – constitutes a rapidly expanding segment of healthcare services that has vendors and consumers alike scrambling to implement new initiatives in their quest to forecast the long-term effects of telemedicine on the general healthcare industry. By utilizing the prevalence of smartphones and connectivity, doctors are now able to communicate with patients via webcam, immediately consult a digital network of disease professionals, and issue prescriptions over email; it also helps that these services are often priced cheaper than live, in-person substitutes.

While disrupting the traditional doctor-patient model typifying centuries of medicine, telemedicine has emerged as a dominant force in healthcare for a variety of reasons. Specifically, telemedicine has been causally linked to fewer hospital readmissions, lower medical costs, improved accessibility for rural patients, and favorable levels of care. Their popularity has become so widespread that, according to James Tong, a mobile health lead and engagement manager at QuintilesIMS (the nation’s largest vendor of healthcare information), recent studies have demonstrated that two out of every three Americans are exhibiting a willingness to use technological devices to supplement traditional health methods.[1]

Furthermore, telemedicine has proven itself capable of optimizing patient outflow at typically overcrowded hospitals. According to a recently published article appearing in Clinical Infectious Diseases, telemedicine “promotes more efficient use of hospital beds, resulting in cost savings,” as well as positive upsides for patients themselves, noting a correlation between at-home medical care, and the rapidity of patient convalescence. [2]

However, the road to telemedicine’s institutionalization has not been an easy one. Lending itself to a host of legal ramifications, with practicing physicians treating patients as far as 6,000 miles away, telemedicine’s array of ambiguities have challenged accepted definitions longstanding in the healthcare industry, such as the notions of medical malpractice and physician licensure. For example, at the Mayo Clinic – a renowned cancer treatment center – doctors treating out-of-state patients follow-up with emails and video consultations; yet may only do so regarding matters that were initially discussed in-person. [3] Designed to preempt any potential issues, these policies highlight the tentative hesitancy of key healthcare organizations in their assessment of telemedicine’s future.

Nonetheless, despite the obstacles and doubts surrounding telemedicine’s quality and feasibility, many of the US’ major healthcare players have made strong moves pushing for expanded telemedicine coverage and service. Indeed, insurers such as Anthem and UnitedHealthGroup have begun offering their own direct consumer-to-virtual-doctor consultations, bypassing traditional medical channels. Additionally, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Stanford Medical Center have also introduced their own digital consultation services. As one doctor from the Cleveland Clinic stated in the Wall Street Journal: “This will open up a world of relationships across a spectrum of health-care providers that we haven’t seen to date.”[4]