Column: Telemedicine Improves Healthcare Access and Reduces Costs

New technology like telemedicine holds great promise for improving access to care for patients, improving health outcomes for the treatment of chronic illnesses, and reducing healthcare costs. We should take steps to enable the expanded use of telemedicine in Massachusetts.

Telemedicine is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients through online communications, including video and specialized technologies. It complements in-person delivery of healthcare services. Telemedicine can improve care by giving all patients, regardless of where they live or mobility limitations, convenient access to all levels of healthcare services, including primary care providers, specialists, and behavioral health clinicians. By making it easier and faster for a patient to be evaluated by a healthcare provider, telemedicine has been shown to improve the health of patients suffering from chronic diseases such as asthma, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and hypertension. Telemedicine has also been shown to help reduce hospital readmissions, decrease lengths of stay, and cut down on emergency room visits.

A 2015 Harvard Medical School study published in the American Journal of Managed Care estimated that a typical in-person visit to a doctor consumes about 2 hours of a patient’s time, with only 20 minutes actually spent face-to-face with the physician. Many people also have a difficult time accessing some healthcare services due to mobility or transportation limitations, long distances necessary to travel to a specialist’s office, time constraints, or challenges scheduling an appointment due to the busy nature of many providers. Expanding access to telemedicine will assist patients in receiving more timely and convenient treatment regardless of economic means, physical ability, transportation options, or geographic location.

By improving access to care and increasing the efficiency of care delivery, telemedicine can help control healthcare costs and make care more affordable for families, seniors, businesses, and our state and local governments.

For example, in 2012, the Mass. General Hospital/Brigham & Women’s Hospital Tele-Stroke network provided 24/7 acute stroke neurology coverage to emergency departments across 11 counties in Massachusetts, providing care to more than 700 patients. This resulted in approximately 400 avoided transfers to academic medical centers, totaling more than $2 million in savings to the Massachusetts healthcare system.

To enable the increased use of telemedicine in Massachusetts, I have filed An Act Advancing and Expanding Access to Telemedicine Services. This legislation will ensure parity in insurance coverage for telemedicine services at equivalent payment rates as in-person treatment; streamline the credentialing process for Massachusetts licensed clinicians using telemedicine services within the state; and ensure a uniform and consistent approach when defining telemedicine services.

Massachusetts is currently one of only two states that do not provide expanded coverage for telemedicine through Medicaid and commercial health insurance plans. For example, MassHealth (the state’s Medicaid program) only provides coverage for remote tele-monitoring for home health services.

This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of healthcare providers, consumer groups, and business organizations, including the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, Atrius Health, AARP Massachusetts, Health Care For All, the American Heart Association/Stroke Association, Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and the Massachusetts Association of Behavioral Health Systems.

If Massachusetts is to remain a leader in providing high quality healthcare, improving health outcomes, and reining in high healthcare costs, we should embrace the full potential of telemedicine.