Telemedicine: Its impact and future in Medicare

Telemedicine is the one of the largest trends to impact the health care industry. In fact, 76 percent of hospitals in the United States utilize technologies to connect with patients and consulting practitioners outside of traditional clinical facilities, according to the American Hospital Association. For perspective, in 2010, that number was just 35 percent.

Telemedicine, or telehealth, is rapidly changing the way patients across the world receive health care services. But despite its growth, it is still a relatively new, unfamiliar technology for many Americans.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine is a virtual care technology first designed to help doctors reach patients in rural areas who had a hard time traveling to doctor’s offices for routine or emergency visits. This technology gives patients instant access to medical experts (including physicians and mental health practitioners) to diagnose illnesses and easily maintain regular appointments all from the convenience of a patient’s home.

After seeing the immense benefits it had on rural communities, the medical community began to explore other populations the technology could positively impact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those initial groups included fragile pediatric patients and seniors.

Telemedicine is constantly evolving to give patients better access to health services at much lower costs, and on their terms. Through video and voice technologies, patients can access health care providers in ways that were unimaginable just 10 years ago.

Telemedicine uses virtual doctors’ appointments to give patients access to health care services such as:

  • On-call video with doctors
  • Follow-up visits
  • Quick consultations
  • Immediate minor care
  • Management of chronic conditions
  • Prescription control
  • Mental wellness check-ups

And as the telecom industry continues to continues to grow, telemedicine’s capabilities will as well.

Is telemedicine safe?

Because telemedicine services use patient data, they must follow all HIPAA regulations to ensure privacy and compliance. This means that your information is absolutely safe using telemedicine — as is your health.

Benefits of telemedicine

According to the American Telemedicine Organization, one of the biggest benefits that telemedicine offers is an improved patient experience. Nine out of 10 physicians see huge benefits in telemedicine, including patient satisfaction, improved communication and access to care, and more.

For many patients, leaving the doctor can sometimes be synonymous with “leaving their problems at the door.” When they get home, they forget what suggestions the doctor gave, or have a hard time holding themselves accountable for their health.

Many experts believe that telemedicine can be a great antidote for this; by providing 24/7 communication, patients can feel supported by their doctor through tough challenges, such as weight loss or stopping smoking.

Here are other ways telemedicine benefits patients and providers:

Patients Providers
  • No travel necessary
  • Easier access
  • Better privacy
  • No exposure to potentially contagious patients
  • No time away from
  • work/family/other responsibilities
  • A more supportive, well-rounded experience
  • Less in-person meetings
  • More time for other patients
  • Better patient follow-through
  • More patient interaction/hands-on action in their health
  • Fewer missed appointments
  • Better efficiency for office

Does Medicare cover telemedicine?

Sometimes. Many telehealth or telemedicine services are covered by Medicare’s physician services under Medicare Part B (similar to in-office visits).

Medicare restricts coverage to patients in rural counties or areas — and requires that patients be located at a health site (called an originating site) during the time of telemedicine services. Originating sites include hospitals, long-term care facilities, and community mental health centers. You can use this CMS tool to find a location that fits this description.

If you meet the above requirements, Medicare covers telemedicine services such as:

  • Office or outpatient visits
  • End-Stage Renal Disease-related services
  • Diabetes self-management training
  • Psychotherapy
  • Medical nutrition therapy
  • Annual wellness visits
  • And more

If you have additional coverage to your Medicare, you may also be covered. A Medicare Supplement policy can help cover your Part B premium, allowing you easier access to telemedicine options. And in 2020, Medicare Advantage plans will be able to offer telehealth services as part of their basic benefits, due to new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expansions.

Future of telemedicine

It’s hard to tell where the future of telemedicine will head. As more and more consumers demand better online medical experiences, telemedicine and telehealth providers will have to continue to meet that demand.

One big question is when (or if) Medicare will pay for all telehealth services. The number of services that Medicare covers has been expanding over the past few years, and the CMS is continually pushing for further expansion of Medicare-covered telemedicine services. It’s safe to say that in the future, we will see a greater development of telemedicine in senior health care services — the only question is when.

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