AMA says telemedicine could improve access, quality of care

The telehealth market is expected to reach $6B by 2020

The American Medical Association (AMA) believes using telemedicine to deliver care to patients could greatly improve access and quality of care, while maintaining patient safety.

The AMA, the nation's largest association of physicians, endorsed the use of remote monitoring and physician interactive services during its Annual Meeting today. The organization also voted to approve a list of guiding principles ( download PDF) "for ensuring the appropriate coverage of and payment for telemedicine services."

The AMA hopes the new guidelines will help foster innovation in telemedicine, as well as help to protect the patient-physician relationship and promote improved care coordination and communication.

The market for telemedicine is expected to be around $1 billion by 2016 and $6 billion by 2020, according to InMedica, a division of IMS Research.

The AMA outlines three broad categories of telemedicine technologies: store and forward (i.e. electronic medical records, email and other communications technology); remote monitoring through devices; and real-time interactive services through the use of an online portal.

The coverage of and payment for telemedicine services variesdely, the AMA said, and while public and private payers have continued to develop formal mechanisms to pay for telemedicine, inconsistencies remain that create barriers to the further adoption.

"Whether a patient is seeing his or her physician in person or via telemedicine, the same standards of care for the patient must be maintained," AMA President Dr. Robert Wah said in a statement.

For example, the guidelines include a patient first seeing a physician "face-to-face" before establishing a telehealth relationship. "The face-to-face encounter could occur in person or virtually through real-time audio and video technology," the AMA said in the executive summary of its decision.

Also, before a telemedicine service is provided, the AMA guidelines require the physician or other health professional to notify the patient of cost-sharing responsibilities and limitations in drugs that can be prescribed via telemedicine.

"Telemedicine can strengthen the patient-physician relationship and improve access to receive care remotely, as medically appropriate, including treatment for chronic conditions, which are proven ways to improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs," Wah continued.

The benefits of using telemedicine include increased access to specialist consultations, improved access to primary and ambulatory care and reduced waiting times.

Physicians who use telemedicine also tend to have more information at their fingertips because they're also using electronic medical records, according to Roy Schoenberg, CEO of American Well, which provides the Veterans Administration (VA) and commercial markets with telemedicine technology services.

In 2012, the VA removed a co-payment requirement for telemedicine services that may have discouraged patients from using in-home video telehealth as a viable care option.

Each year, Medicare pays about $6 million for telemedicine services, the AMA said.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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