At the rate at which technology is transforming so many industries, it would be fair to assume that telemedicine is quickly overtaking the medical field. Yet it’s not. According to a study based on a physician’s survey from 2016, telemedicine is not catching on among America’s doctors.
Whether you are talking private practice owners, hospitalists or locum tenens physicians, doctors are just not using telemedicine to its fullest extent. In fact, they are barely using it at all. Just 15.4% of America’s doctors work in practices were telemedicine is a normal part of patient interaction. And according to the data, the use of telemedicine correlates with the size of the practice.
How Telemedicine Is Used
A pair of researchers from the American Medical Association (AMA) looked at data generated by the AMA’s 2016 Physician Practice Benchmark Survey and published their findings in the December 2018 issue of Health Affairs.
The researchers, Carol K. Kane, Ph.D. And Kurt Gillis, Ph.D., discovered that the 15.4% of doctors whose practices use telemedicine are not afraid to employ the technology for a wide variety of applications. Doctors employ telemedicine to conduct visits with patients, forward radiology information, and more.
In addition, just 11.2% of doctors work in practices were telemedicine is used to facilitate communication between doctors and other healthcare professionals. So it would appear as though providers are not using the technology for their own interactions any more than they are for interactions with patients.
Cost Could Be a Factor
Kane and Gillis concluded that the correlation between practice size and telemedicine adoption suggests that cost could be a factor. Despite plenty of effort over the last few years to encourage doctors to use telemedicine, it seems as though individual and group practices alike are not willing to invest the money in it.
This should not be surprising given the amount of resources doctors have pumped into electronic records systems. The entire medical profession has been struggling for nearly a decade with electronic record keeping; expecting them to embrace telemedicine at the same time is both unrealistic and overly optimistic.
Add to that a healthy amount of skepticism over the benefits of telemedicine and it’s easy to see why so few doctors are using smartphones and desktop PCs to communicate with their patients. However, it doesn’t explain why the industry isn’t using the same technology for interactions between providers.
Easier and More Efficient
One thing we know about the technologies that make telemedicine possible is that they facilitate more efficient communication across the board. For example, videoconferencing is not a tool limited just to telemedicine. The entire world uses it on a daily basis. It would seem that the technology would make it easier for physicians to communicate with other providers outside of the usual e-mail, text messages, and phone calls.
By its nature, telemedicine is supposed to make healthcare delivery easier and more efficient. It is more efficient for the private practice owner to see patients not needing critical care via telemedicine rather than having them come to the office. It is easier for a locum tenens physician to do routine visits remotely, via telemedicine, rather than traveling to a rural location for small number of office visits.
If cost truly is the biggest barrier to telemedicine, it should eventually fade away by itself. But there are other things holding doctors back, so there’s no telling what it will take to get them to embrace telemedicine. All we know right now is that only a fraction of America’s doctors are using telemedicine to interact with their patients. Hopefully that will change.