How to fit that long-delayed, much-needed physical or tooth cleaning into a schedule jammed with day-long meetings and deadlines? Thanks to telemedicine—a telecommunications capability that allows employees to consult with their doctors via two-way video, text, or E-mail—many medical experts say that workers can receive some of the care they need from the comfort of their office desks. More than 36 million Americans have used telemedicine in some way, and as many as 70 percent of doctor visits can be handled over the phone, according to a recent study by the Affiliated Workers Association, a network of professionals dedicated to empowering everyday employees.
Glenn Hammack, president and chief executive officer of NuPhysicia—a medical services company that offers telehealth capabilities to businesses—says telemedicine’s convenience value is its key selling point.
“Probably the most powerful aspect of telemedicine is improving access and improving the convenience of a lot of elements of healthcare,” says Hammack. “So, whether you’re talking about folks [who] would have a hard time getting to a specialist or whether you’re talking about someone who is in a jam and needs to see a doctor before they go on a business trip, telemedicine clinics are very valuable.”
Here are six of telemedicine’s greatest benefits, according to the experts:
1. Convenience. Penciling in a lunch-hour visit with your physician can prove challenging, especially when a can’t-miss conference call absorbs the bulk of your afternoon. Telemedicine eases this problem. Through video, Web chat, or phone, workers can follow-up on a prescription or diagnosis with a physician they’ve been seeing for years—if that physician indeed provides telehealth services—or with a new doctor in their network, says Kathy Dunmire, vice president of product management for BlueCross BlueShield of Minnesota. The insurance company partners with American Well, a telehealth company that connects physicians to consumers from their offices and homes. When you register, you can check out a new in-network physician’s background, she says. The goal of telehealth is to create an experience that closely mirrors a traditional doctor visit.
2. Less time in the waiting room. We’ve all flipped through the same year-old issue of Us or People while waiting our turn to see our primary care physician or dentist. Telemedicine eliminates this process, according to Dunmire. “[Online care] is really a big plus for our members. It takes a couple of minutes to register and put your health history in,” and then you’re ready to get the healthcare you need, she says.
3. Cost-efficiency. An increasing number of doctors are charging less for a telemedicine consultation than they would for an in-person visit. Telemedicine can also reduce travel expenses, according to Paula Guy, chief executive officer for the Georgia Partnership for Telehealth, an agency that seeks to increase Georgians’ access to healthcare services through technology. This is especially true for those living in rural communities. Rural families who would normally travel hours out of their way to access key health services can do it from the comfort of their couch.
4. Expedited transmission of MRIs or X-rays for a second opinion. Perhaps you’re buried under a business proposal deadline and are unable to get a second opinion about your thyroid condition. E-mailing an MRI or X-ray of the inflamed area to a specialist for a second opinion just might be your saving grace. One of the beauties of telehealth is that it can improve communication between patients and their medical practitioners. In-person visits and postal mail are no longer the only options for receiving and sending medical documents.
5. Privacy assurance. Telemedicine complies with HIPAA laws, which aim to prevent private or secure medical documents from being leaked. “You wouldn’t want to Skype with your physician and talk about all your personal medical history,” says Dunmire. But telemedicine “is safe. It’s private.”
Despite these conveniences, telemedicine still has its share of downsides. Here are the three most common:
1. Electronic glitches. Technology is only as reliable as the electrical current that keeps it running. Inclement weather and other annoyances can cause a power outage or disrupt an internet connection, complicating online consultation with a doctor. Workers should keep that in mind prior to scheduling online visits.
2. Physician resistance. The bulk of resistance comes from doctors struggling to comfortably use the new technology, but this hesitance only extends so far, says Dunmire. “At the same time, their interest has been piqued a little bit when they think about how they might begin to use this to better manage patients with chronic illnesses or be able to expand access to rural areas in particular.”
3. Inadequate assessment. While having the ability to interface with your primary care physician or dentist is a major plus, certain non-verbal cues might still slip through the cracks.”To me, there are no limits on how you can use telemedicine, but of course one of the cons is you cannot personally touch or feel the patient,” Guy says.
Raymond Christensen, a rural family physician and assistant dean for rural health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, agrees.”I think there a lot of good uses for it,” he says. “I don’t think you can start an IV with it. There are places where we still have to have people touching people. But it brings a higher level of care … than we’ve been able to provide before.”
Rules regarding privacy and confidentiality apply to a telehealth setting as much as they do to one that’s face to face. But telemedical consumers should be especially mindful that any information transmitted online—particularly audio, video, and images—can fall prey to hackers. It’s incumbent on telehealth users to learn how to operate the technology correctly and to know their legal rights when it comes to protecting their identities online. And be respectful to your coworkers during a video visit. Minimizing a viewing pane to obscure a bleeding lesion and wearing headphones when talking with your physician show sensitivity to the reactions of others.
So, what’s the bottom line? Aim to visit with your physician in-person whenever possible. But if you absolutely can’t visit the office physically due to unbreakable work commitments, consider a telemedical option. Contact your primary care physician or insurance company to find out if and how these services might be available to you.
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