Telemedicine Continues to Reach New Heights

Imagine you suddenly became injured and needed medical help quickly. How long would it take you to see a physician? For an increasing number of Americans, the answer may be concerning.

According to a recent survey of 15 major metropolitan areas, wait times to see a physician for new patients increased by about 30 percent from 2014 to 2017. Some of the more eye-opening estimates include a two-month wait period to get a physical exam in Boston and a one-month wait for a heart evaluation in Washington state. Wait times in some areas have become so excessive that patients change their physician entirely.

It gets worse. According to the National Rural Health Association, people living in rural areas have nearly one-third as much access to physicians, lower incomes to pay medical bills, and comparatively more health concerns to address than their urban counterparts. Even when a physician is available, travel times and distances in rural America can make access challenging.

Whether it’s long waiting times, geographical distance, or the fear of expensive medical bills, U.S. healthcare leaves many unsatisfied. Thankfully, telemedicine, the use of telecommunication technology to help administer medical care, provides solutions for many who might otherwise suffer healthcare-access woes. Not only can telemedicine connect patients with physicians quickly and cheaply, but it may also soon be able to do so regardless of distance.

A recent CNBC article notes that an increasing number of physicians are becoming licensed in multiple states using telemedicine technology to help patients receive medical care anytime, anywhere. Dr. Sajad Zalzala, who has a license to practice medicine in all fifty states and Washington, D.C., notes, “With brick-and-mortar only, you can only help a few patients.” However, “with telemedicine, you have access to so many more people.”

The healthcare market is ready to make the switch. By 2025, the telemedicine market is expected to reach an all-time high $130 billion in revenue. Research published in Emergency American Medicine finds that nearly 40 percent of physician appointments can be conducted through telemedicine.

Public policy and the private sector are currently working to help physicians acquire all the necessary state medical licenses. Legislation such as the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact provides an expedited licensure process to allow physicians to practice medicine in dozens of states easily. Businesses such as MedSpoke provide services to help physicians obtain and manage multiple licenses.

“The need is there,” says Jon Larson, CEO of MedSpoke. “There’s a big shortage of physicians, and technology offers us a better way to solve this problem.”

Unfortunately, there are still many impediments preventing physicians from practicing in multiple states using telemedicine from reaching their full potential. Holding and maintaining a medical license in different states is expensive and time-consuming to maintain. State medical boards that grant licenses also frequently consult each other when processing applications, slowing down approval times.

The Food and Drug Administration, although typically confined to regulating drugs and medical devices, recently announced its intent to advance digital healthcare by providing additional oversight. Although its current focus is to increase oversight of clinical decision support software, such regulation could extend into digital physician services, including telemedicine.

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post arguing that telemedicine’s potential to improve healthcare is impeded by regulation. In that case, I was wrong. Thankfully, regulators’ efforts to thwart progress have been largely outmatched by technological progress, liberalized health policy, and private sector initiative. For the sake of so many patients frustrated with their current healthcare access, I hope telemedicine’s progress continues.

Raymond J. March is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Assistant Professor of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University.
Posts by Raymond J. March | Full Biography and Publications
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