Growing Pains in Telemedicine

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The past decade has been witness to a number of extraordinary developments in the health care sector. Gene therapies, synthetic cells, breakthrough cancer treatments, and even a potential cure for hepatitis C have all made headlines as numerous technological developments are made at a dizzying pace.

So where does this leave telemedicine?

Despite a number of legislative and reimbursement-based hurdles, hospital executives and employers are nearly unanimous in their support of telehealth technology. Additionally, more than half of patients surveyed by the Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA) indicated that they would prefer a telehealth consultation over services provided in-person. But as the industry continues to gain momentum, it has ostensibly been met with some growing pains.

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One of the most overlooked obstacles simply involves a stable internet connection. An analysis conducted by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently tied a lack of broadband access to poor health outcomes, especially pervasive in rural communities. Nearly 50% of counties in the United States are considered “double burden” – regions with a high prevalence of chronic disease that are significantly deficient of broadband access. In these counties, obesity and diabetes rates are 19-25% higher than national averages. Coupled with historically poor access to primary care physicians, these communities face multifaceted and complex challenges that even telemedicine cannot hope to resolve alone.

Looming beyond connectivity complications lies the additional hurdle of generating consumer awareness. Although more than 90 percent of large employers are expected to offer some form of telemedicine services in their health plans this year, utilization of those services often remains low; a report from athenahealth indicates that 29 percent of their 7.5 million patient base have adopted their online portal. In addition to continued legislative reform, moving the ball forward for telemedicine will likely require aggressive new approaches to marketing efforts in order to introduce consumers to the many benefits that the industry promises them.