Tuesday, March 4, 2014

TeleMedicine the Wave of the Future?

By  Jonnelle Marte

When Bryan Snider, a freelance photographer in Phoenix, needed to see a doctor for an apparent sinus infection, he didn’t travel to his doctor’s office or the nearby urgent care center. He headed straight to his couch and picked up his phone.

Hardly anyone makes phone calls much anymore. Yet a growing number of people are ringing their doctors — using smartphones and tablets. Consumers, shouldering a greater share of their health insurance costs through high deductible plans, see phone- and Web-based visits as a cheaper, more convenient way to get treated for minor ailments. And with wait times expected to increase as doctors prepare for an influx of newly insured patients, telemedicine services are looking like an essential time-saver.

At the same time, more employers and insurance companies are willing to pay for the services. The share of large employers (with more than 5,000 workers) who offer telemedicine services increased to 17% in 2013, from 12% the year before, according to human resources consulting firm Mercer. The percentage of companies considering the services grew to 43% from 33% over the same time period.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed parity laws requiring some private health insurance companies to cover telemedicine services, a number that’s nearly doubled since 2012, according to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group for the industry. Thirteen states, including Connecticut, Florida and New York, have similar laws in the works. “There’s been a really strong push in the market,” says Jonathan Linkous, chief executive of the association.

Telemedicine consultations typically cost less than $50 each, making them generally cheaper than retail health clinics, which charge $55 to $75 on average per visit, or urgent care centers, which can cost around $120 per visit, according to Consumer Reports. All of those options are less costly than a trip to the emergency room, which runs $400 on average. Doctors, who either talk to patients over the phone or through a video chat, base their diagnosis on a patient’s medical history and the way they describe their symptoms. Some doctors order lab tests or ask patients to send pictures, say of a rash or their tonsils, if they need more information.

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