Telemedicine A Growing Priority For Hospitals

Posted on April 29, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare branding and communications expert with more than 25 years of industry experience. and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also worked extensively healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Telemedicine programs are not new to hospitals. In fact, tele-stroke and tele-ICU programs have gained significant ground over the past several years, and other subspecialties, such as tele-psychiatry, seem likely to grow in popularity.

In coming years, telemedicine will go from being a one-off strategy to an integral part of hospital care delivery, if a new survey is any indication. Government and private insurers are gradually agreeing to pay for telemedicine services, knocking down the biggest obstacle to rolling out such programs. And while integrating telemedicine services with EMRs poses major challenges, hospital leaders seem determined to address them.

Virtually all of the hospitals responding to the survey, which was conducted by telemedicine vendor ReachHealth, told researchers that they were busy planning and preparing for telemedicine programs. Twenty-two percent of survey respondents, which also included some medical practices, said that rolling out telemedicine programs was one of their top priorities, and another 44% said that it was a high priority. Health systems averaged 5.51 telemedicine service lines, up almost 20% from last year.

I was interested to note that 96% of respondents were planning to roll out telemedicine because they felt it would improve patient outcomes. I’m not aware that there’s any substantial body of evidence demonstrating that telemedicine can have this effect, but clearly this is a widespread belief.

Also, it was a bit surprising to read that “improving financial returns” was a very low priority for providers when developing telemedicine programs. On the other hand, as researchers point out, hospitals and practices to see improved patient satisfaction as a driver of ROI. Apparently, execs responding to this survey are convinced that telemedicine to have a substantial effect on satisfaction and outcomes, though to date, only 55% said telemedicine was improving outcomes and 44% felt it was boosting patient satisfaction.

Researchers also found that providers that dedicate more resources to telemedicine are seeing more success than those that don’t. Specifically, hospitals and clinics that have a 100% dedicated telemedicine program manager in place were doing better with their initiatives.

In fact, two thirds of respondents with a dedicated program manager in place ranked their efforts to be “highly successful,” while only 46% of programs without a dedicated program manager met that description. (The programs were most successful when a VP or director was put in charge of telemedicine efforts, but only slightly more than when a CEO or coordinator was in charge.)

That being said, it seems that the highest barriers to telemedicine success are technical. The respondents complained that the lack of common EMR in hub and spoke hospitals, and the lack of integration between telemedicine and their current EMR, were still standing in their way. Many were also concerned about the lack of native telemedicine capabilities in their EMR.

Despite all of the obstacles to creating a flourishing telemedicine program, hospitals and clinics have continued to make progress. In fact, 36% have had a tele-stroke program in place for more than three years, 23% tele-radiology for three years plus, and 22 percent have had neurology and psychiatry telemedicine programs for three years or more. ReachHealth researchers note that service lines requiring access to specialists are growing more rapidly than other service lines, but contend that this is likely to shift given pending shortages of primary care physicians.

Admittedly, any survey published by telemedicine vendor is likely to be biased. Still, I thought these statistics were worth discussing. Do they track with what you’re seeing out there? And do you think EMR vendors will do more to support telemedicine anytime soon?