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IMPACT MAGAZINE: Connecting health to home

How telemedicine improves efficiency and access to crucial care

Published Saturday, September 28, 2019
by Kris Hauge

Decades ago, doctors made house calls to patients, but the need for efficiency shifted medical providers to stationary locations and travel became the responsibility of the patients.

However, with the advances in technology, medical care is becoming more convenient and cost effective for both patients and medical providers alike by taking out the need for travel.

Whether it’s called telemedicine, telehealth, e-visits or another name, online medicine is rapidly expanding to provide quality care to patients no matter where they need it. For rural residents, telecare and e-visits reduce the need for travelling long distances and provides access to needed health care services directly in their communities.

Convenience

From basic health care needs to specialized care for chronic conditions and mental health, local and regional health care providers are increasingly incorporating technology into the delivery of care. Medical providers and specialists can review a patient’s more basic health concerns and recommend treatment or go more in-depth with video chats for more complex health needs. The use of digital diagnostic tools, such as those exclusively offered with the Sanford Health Tyto Care, allows health care providers to further harness technology to assist patients and administer better access to quality care.

“Our providers place a high priority on patients’ access to quality, timely health care close to home. Telemedicine services enable them to make this priority a reality.” said Dr. Doug Griffin, Medical Officer for Sanford Health Fargo.

Telemedicine offers convenience and less stress for patients as well.

“Since e-visits are available around the clock, you can be seen outside of clinic hours if they aren’t convenient for you,” Essentia Health-West Chief Operating Officer Al Hurley said. “There is reduced stress, less expense and less time required away from work or family obligations.”

Capacity

Traveling for health care takes time and money. Whether it is a patient inconvenienced by the cost and distance to see a provider or a doctor travelling to a remote location to provide care onsite, time spent on the road adds up to a lot of inefficiency. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges when combined with a national shortage of primary and specialty care physicians, this inefficiency results in fewer patients receiving the care they need. Connecting patients and providers through technology is a much needed solution.

Never has this been more true than in caring for veterans with the Fargo VA Health Care System (HCS) in Fargo where an array of primary and specialized medical care, including mental health counseling, is available for those who have served. The Fargo VA HCS provided over 40,000 telehealth encounters in 2018 with over 90% of primary care and mental health providers utilizing telehealth to treat patients.

“Telehealth allows for a provider to be able to cover a larger geographic area or population in a more effective and efficient way,” Hurley said. “It can help in areas that have provider shortages to ensure access to quality care.”

Reducing the need to travel can also be a benefit to patients and providers. Given the sometimes challenging climate, winter travel from rural areas doesn’t need to be a concern for patients receiving care through telemedicine channels.

According to Dr. Greg Glasner, president of Essentia Health-West, when it comes to treating patients, time is off the essence.

“Time is valuable and telemedicine helps to maximize the time of providers so they can see more patients and serve a greater area and more remote areas,” he said. “Time is spent on patient care, not drive time.”

Continuity of care

For all patients, the reduction in wait times for receiving care is an additional benefit of telemedicine. Reducing the amount of time it takes for a patient to receive the care they need results in healthier communities and lower medical costs overall.

“Health outcomes have been very well accepted and have reduced wait times for veterans,” Margaret Nelson, the Fargo VA HCS Telehealth Manager said. “When we enable veterans more timely access to providers, we can move them toward successful health interventions sooner.” The Fargo VA HCS has seen a significant reduction in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for veterans using telemonitoring systems for various health concerns.

Dr. Doug Griffin, medical officer for Sanford Health Fargo, agrees. “With telemedicine, providers can see patients located in even the most remote of communities, ensuring access and continuity of care which in turn, enhances patient outcomes and safety,” he said.

Cost

Telemedicine visits and delivery of care through these channels is often less expensive than face-to-face medical appointments — often it’s even cheaper than what a patient would pay with insurance.

While the technology can be costly to implement, the payoff for patients, and especially veterans, is offset by the reduced cost in travel and medical staffing costs.

“Our veterans tell us that they appreciate not having to drive to Fargo while having greater access to more services,” Nelson said. “It has also reduced wait times for our veterans."

Efficiency in care assists in keeping health care costs lower and local.

“Treating our patients locally reduced travel time and costs and keeps health care dollars in local communities,” Griffin said.

Telemedicine benefits everyone by reducing exposure. With infectious conditions such as influenza, travelling to a clinic or hospital often exposes others, spreading it to a larger number of people than necessary. With e-visits, medical providers can assess a patient's condition and advise treatment without the person ever leaving home — reducing the risk of passing the virus on to others.

Cutting edge

As technology advances, patients and providers will further benefit from telehealth with increased efficiency, lower costs and better access to quality health care. Many patients are achieving better health outcomes and reduced stress as cutting-edge advances in diagnostic tools allow medical providers to provide increased service to even the most remote communities.

As Dr. Glasner said, “Telemedicine is only going to grow and become a more efficient way of delivering medicine.”