Healthcare for Less Than a Latte

Faced with a growing shortage of doctors, Americans may consider turning to “telehealth” services, which connect patients to healthcare professionals via teleconferencing programs like Skype, to get affordable and timely access to care.

Millions of Americans will soon gain access to insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which may exacerbate an existing doctor shortage.

As the American population swells and ages, the demand for doctors is expected to grow even more. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could experience a shortage of more than 90,000 physicians by 2020—a number that may rise to more than 130,000 by 2025. At the same time, research shows that fewer medical students are choosing careers in the field of primary care.

What does this mean for patients? There may not be enough doctors to go around. As a result, telehealth could start playing a greater role in healthcare services. And unlike traditional healthcare—which can be costly—some telehealth providers boast rates lower than the price of a latte per day.  

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Telehealth Cuts Costs, Reaches Rural Patients

Telehealth alone will not solve the country’s doctor shortages. However, it may help to increase efficiency and cut costs by allowing communities to share healthcare resources, facilitating better management of chronic disease, and reducing the number and length of patients’ hospital stays, suggests the non-profit American Telemedicine Association.

“In the old days, you could call up your family practitioner and explain, ‘this is what’s going on – what should I do?’” says Mark Friedman, MD, chief medical officer of the home telehealth program First Stop Health, which offers memberships starting at under $300 per year—less than a dollar per day. “But today, more often than not, you won’t get to speak to your doctor. If you’re lucky, you might speak with office staff. Or, you could use telehealth services to speak with an expert and get the information you need.”

Telehealth is especially cost-cutting for patients living in rural regions with few doctors. By linking remote patients with resources that aren’t available locally, telehealth reduces the financial and physical burdens of travel, while helping people to complete care programs from the cost-effective comforts of home. In fact, a study published in Telemedicine Journal and e-Health found that participants who used telehealth services decreased their healthcare costs by 58 percent, compared to a control group that used only traditional care.

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The Growing Trend of Telehealth

Telehealth has been practiced in one form or another in the United States for decades. The first use of interactive video in patient care occurred about 40 years ago as part of neurological and psychiatric services in Nebraska. More recently, telehealth has been used to support:

  • Veterans in medically underserved communities. Since the Department of Veteran Affairs established its telehealth program in 2003, it has saved patients more than an estimated 800,000 miles of travel. In 2012 alone, nearly half a million veterans accessed telehealth services for physical and mental health challenges, allowing many of them to save money and maintain greater independence at home.
  • Patients with chronic health conditions. Programs like the Bosch Health Buddy System pair easy-to-use health monitoring equipment with web-based computer applications, allowing people with chronic health conditions to receive long-term care coordination from their own home. Such interventions may help to promote positive health outcomes. For example, a research review published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism links home telemonitoring services to improved glycaemic control and reduced hospitalizations among patients with diabetes.
  • People coping with mental health challenges. Telemental health is one of the largest applications of telehealth in the United States, claims the American Telemedicine Association. Although further research is needed, a review article published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found success in the use of telemental health services to treat depression, dementia, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress, panic disorders, and eating disorders.
  • Addicts looking to kick the habit. Due to the social stigma associated with addiction, as well as the shortage of doctors, Americans who want to quit smoking or drinking may be reluctant to seek professional help. A recent report by the Institute of Health Economics positions telehealth as a possible solution, highlighting the success of internet, computer, and telephone cessation programs for helping addicts get clean.

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