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Lack of Reimbursement Barrier to Telehealth Adoption

Jessica Men
Most physicians consider telehealth a promising tool in improving patient access to primary care services, but only 15% use it in their practice.
Most physicians consider telehealth a promising tool in improving patient access to primary care services, but only 15% of the 1557 physicians surveyed by the Robert Graham Center, American Academy of Family Physicians, and Anthem, indicated that they use telehealth in their practice.

Almost 98% of those who use telehealth said they use electronic health records (EHR) in providing care to their patients (compared to 92% of non-users). The survey analyzed physician attitudes towards the use of telehealth (medical information exchanged between locations via electronic communication such as smartphones, email, two-way video, etc.) in optimizing patient care.

The survey focused on physician characteristics; practice characteristics; attitudes towards telehealth and barriers to using telehealth; use of telehealth among telehealth users; and beliefs about telehealth from users and non-users. The report also categorized the main purposes for which telehealth users use various services: diagnoses or treatment, chronic disease management, second opinions, follow-up, and even emergency care.

Interestingly, findings also indicated that—whether they used telehealth or not—a majority of all physicians said they believe telehealth improves access to care for patients and continuity of care. Almost 90% of both users and non-users said they would use telehealth if they were to be reimbursed.

“It is clear from our findings that reimbursement remains one of the largest barriers to the use of telehealth in primary care,” Andrew Bazemore, MD, MPH, director of the Robert Graham Center, said in a statement. “However, this seems to be evolving, at least in the private sector, with several national large private carriers reimbursing doctors in 2016, if not earlier.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of telehealth, and the area with greatest potential promise for telehealth implementation and utilization, lies in the delivery of remote clinical care to patients who may not have ready access to clinicians—which was corroborated by survey results.

Respondents who practiced in rural areas were more than twice as likely to use telehealth as physicians who practiced in urban areas (29% vs 11%).

“Via telehealth services, clinicians can deliver care more easily after normal business hours, monitor patient vital signs remotely, or conduct consultations with other providers,” the authors of the report wrote. “Telehealth can provide an avenue to meet the desires and needs of individuals who are seeking care outside of traditional office visits.”

Though findings from this survey suggest that most physicians see promise in telehealth and a routine place for it in primary care, it is still prevented from becoming widely adopted by privacy, technology, and financial barriers. However, the findings from this survey prove that physician attitude is at least in the right place necessary to eventually begin the transition of telehealth services from occasional use to routine implementation.

“The survey results proved to us that family physicians are open-minded and optimistic about the benefits of telehealth and that they are willing to use this technology provided they receive appropriate compensation,” said John Jesser, vice president of provider engagement for Anthem, Inc. “As telehealth gains momentum, more outcomes research and input on the quality, convenience and cost of telemedicine from a patient’s perspective will be needed.”

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