I was talking with the mobile health lead at one of the large telcom providers recently and we had a good discussion about telemedicine and its possible impact for good or bad on healthcare. She asked a really good question, “Will telemedicine lower the cost of healthcare or just add new touch points?”
The translation to that question is whether telemedicine will replace other healthcare costs or if it will just create new healthcare costs that never existed before. I should say that her feeling was that telemedicine would end up lowering costs, but the question is well worth asking. In fact, even if the answer is that telemedicine will lower healthcare costs, there are many on the payer side of the equation that aren’t as confident.
The reality is that a telemedicine visit likely could raise costs. The idea of having to uproot yourself, go to the doctors office, wait in the waiting room, wait in the exam room, etc is a really big deterrent that stops many of us from going to the doctors. The idea that I could click on a link and see a doctor from the comfort of my own home with no wait times (or at least I’m waiting at home where I can get other things done) will definitely cause us to see the doctor more often.
This means that the real question isn’t whether telemedicine will increase the number of visits to the doctor (and more visits equals more costs). Let’s assume that we do see the doctor more often in a telemedicine enabled world. This then begs the question of whether these extra visits will reduce the long term costs of healthcare.
Using our assumptions above, it suggests that we’ll visit the doctor earlier under telemedicine than we would today. Could these early visits catch a disease earlier? Could these early visits avoid a hospitalization or other expensive healthcare cost? Could early treatment of an issue prevent someone from having a visit (or dozens of visits) later? Looking at it from a different angle, can telemedicine make a doctor more efficient?
This impact won’t likely happen immediately, but is the long term hope of what telemedicine can become and how it could lower healthcare costs. I personally lean towards telemedicine being able to realize these goals. Although, we won’t know until we figure out the way to reimburse a doctor for a telemedicine visit. Not to mention overcoming the physician licensing issues with telemedicine. Each of those will happen though and then we’ll really know if telemedicine lowers the costs of healthcare or not.