Given what we have all just gone through (and are continuing to go through) with the global pandemic, does the question about whether we should be using or supporting telehealth services really need answering? To think in terms of having in-person only or office visits right now is so “last year” (or the year before). It’s retro thinking–the kind of thinking where a teacher would insist on sharp pencils, not tablets. Now that we know about the benefits of telehealth, there is no going back.
Let’s start with the financial aspects of telehealth. Systemically, telehealth can save patients dollars by providing a visit virtually, it can save doctors money, and it saves the overall health system money as well. But the financial benefits are only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dive into looking at the benefits for each group.
For a large minority of patient/provider interactions, a virtual visit is quicker and more convenient. There is flexibility about when and where a patient can experience care by the physician. Because the patient doesn’t need to travel, there are no traffic jams, parking tickets, or allotted drive-time back and forth to the appointment. There are no childcare needs, sitting in a waiting room, reading dog-eared magazines, and staring nervously at other patients wondering what disease they might harbor and or be spreading. There is also speed for patient care because physicians can be located anywhere and anytime to meet the needs of the patient.
For physicians, there is also the benefit of convenience –driving, waiting, and scheduling– that patients experience. But there is also safety to consider in the midst of a pandemic and professional efficiency that is required in order to see as many patients as possible. More patients can be seen in the same number of minutes that a physician is working, and, if needed, patients can be virtually transitioned to other providers as necessary or virtually provided support functions. Physicians can also add providers without adding offices and parking spaces. It levels the playing field allowing patients access to healthcare whether they are one or 100 miles from a doctor or healthcare facility.
For overall health systems, there are real savings of cost, capital investment, and facility management. A single physician can be used more or less, as and when needed, and can provide service remotely less expensively than if they occupy 100 square feet, 70 hours a week. The cost of rent, heat, electricity, and other utilities is significantly cut back when utilizing telehealth and organizations can flexibly (even instantly) structure service provision. If we close our eyes and think back to the sitcom “The Office,” we could muse about the virtues of office culture, watercooler chatter, and doctor/patient interaction. But then when we widen those eyes and remember the cost, health risk, waste, and inefficiency, in-person care doesn’t seem to work anymore and telehealth proves there are better ways to provide patient care.
It is better to turn round and face a future where many or even most health interactions can be delivered faster and virtually. And they should be. It is more convenient for the patient. More efficient for the provider. It saves money. It saves time. It is more flexible.
A telemedicine system is flexible and scalable (both up and down) — because organizations can’t easily add floors to an office suite or collapse them back again.
Wisely-chosen telemedicine systems are a far better option. Their average cost – the platform service cost, if used at scale – is a few cents per minute of service. Making the right choice is critical– poorly chosen telemedicine systems can be mind-numbingly expensive, complicated, and end up padlocking your hands and feet. But good choices will lead to good outcomes – for all parties, the patient, provider, and system.
Procedures and in-patient care, of course, require physical facilities but even then many routine steps can be provided by retailers (vaccination, blood draw, swabs, and tests) who are experienced in customer care and used to rapid throughput. Facilities that are left will be specialized and can be optimized for efficient throughput.
Virtual visits via telehealth provide the best of health with immediacy, convenience, and expertise — without the ‘worst’ of health — the inconvenience of appointments, waiting, traffic, gas money, time off work, etc. Let’s make sure we are always on the best side!
Matthew Davidge is CEO and founder of Bluestream Health.