newsimg4C2G0AAQMore and more health plans and employers are embracing telemedicine as part of their health insurance offerings, in order to help enrollees who may live far from their doctor – and to save money.

A 2014 study by the consulting firm Deloitte calculated that there would be 75 million virtual doctor visits in Northern America that year, and another survey by Towers Watson in the same year found that 37% of employers planned to offer their workers telemedicine consultations in 2015 – with another 34% planning to do so by 2017.

More private insurers are paying for telehealth services, a trend experts say will grow as more people become accustomed to it.

Studies have found telemedicine can reduce the cost of delivering health care, particularly for routine office visits. After all, a $50 telemedicine visit to diagnose a sinus infection is much cheaper than a $500 trip to an emergency department.

This is also important when waiting times to see your doctor can be more than a week, by which time the infection may have worsened.

Fitting the digital lifestyle
One of the main benefits of telemedicine is that it can help rural health plan enrollees more easily access health services without driving some distance to the doctor’s office.

Also, telemedicine fits well into the digital lifestyle for Generation Y and others who prefer shopping online and ordering movies via Netflix.

Employers who have been surveyed about telemedicine say they want to offer modern conveniences to these connected employees, who expect on-demand services.

Insurers and employers alike are also hoping telemedicine will live up to its hype by keeping people out of more expensive health care settings.

Many large national insurers have been experimenting with telemedicine in various states to suss out potential cost savings.

The two issues they’ve been dealing with is what to pay doctors who are helping patients by live video chat, and what types of services can benefit from telemedicine and which ones should not be included.

And telemedicine is no panacea. Michael Radeschi, director of product management at HIghmark, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliate in Pittsburgh, told the trade publication Modern Healthcare that technology can’t replace all of the nuances of in-person clinical care.

“If we found ourselves at 40% to 50% of professional services that were telehealth, we’d be a little nervous,” he said.

What can telemedicine cover?
Telemedicine includes everything from telephone consultations and live video feeds via Skype to digital CT scans and remote monitoring of intensive-care units. Here are some examples:
• It can involve a primary care or allied health professional providing a consultation with a patient. This may involve the use of live interactive video or the use of store and forward transmission of diagnostic images, vital signs and/or video clips along with patient data for later review.
• Remote patient monitoring, which uses devices to remotely collect and send data to a home health agency or a remote diagnostic testing facility for interpretation. Such applications might include a specific vital sign data, such as blood glucose or heart ECG, or a variety of indicators for homebound patients. Such services can be used to supplement the use of visiting nurses.
• Consumer medical and health information includes the use of the Internet and wireless devices for consumers to obtain specialized health information and on-line discussion groups to provide peer-to-peer support.

Telemedicine benefits
Improved access – It improves access to doctors and allows physicians and health facilities to expand their reach, beyond their own offices.
Cost efficiencies – Telemedicine has been shown to reduce the cost of health care and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays.
Quality – Studies have shown that the quality of health care services delivered via telemedicine is as good those given in traditional in-person consultations.
Patient demand – The greatest impact of telemedicine is on the patient and their family. Using telemedicine technologies reduces travel time and related stresses for the patient.