Whenever we discuss the need for access to better quality healthcare, patients in rural areas are typically the focus. From a geographic standpoint, this makes sense since rural patients simply don’t have the same amount of choices available in urban areas when it comes to choosing a provider. They often have no access to specialty care as well, and must often travel long distances to visit a specialist.
Telemedicine is often cited as a solution to resolve some of the challenges pertaining to rural access to care. It just makes sense because patients in rural areas can connect with physicians and medical specialists, regardless of where they are located, face-to-face and in real-time. This eliminates the need to travel long distances and can result in better quality patient care – especially for those who suffer from chronic conditions.
From a healthcare provider standpoint, telemedicine allows them to see more patients in less time – often reducing overhead costs. Also preventing ER and hospitalization visits, and reducing patient wait times are two big benefits across the industry.
But what about patients in urban areas? Why hasn’t there been a big discussion around telemedicine in these markets as wait-times for patient appointments continue to skyrocket?
A big reason why telemedicine hasn’t been a focus in urban areas is due to telehealth reimbursement. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) gives preferential treatment to rural providers. Also, payment structures and a lack of clarity around payment policies are two areas currently impacting the integration of telehealth services across the board.
Recent legislation passed by the Senate – known as the CHRONIC Act – can be a step in the right direction if it goes into law. However, when you hear stories about patients in Boston needing to wait 52 days to see a physician, one would naturally think that telemedicine could help reduce this time substantially.
According to a study by Merritt Hawkins, a national physician search firm, wait times for new patient appointments in 15 major metropolitan areas has increased by 30% since 2014. It now takes an average of 24 days for a patient to make an appointment with a physician in these markets compared to 18.5 days just a few years ago.
The firm’s report hypothesized that the advent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has greatly increased insurance coverage and consumer demand for physician services had been a significant contributor to this spike. Also, the aging population and physician shortages are major factors.
For quite some time, improving overall patient outcomes has been a focus in the healthcare industry. But when patients residing in urban areas have to wait a long time to see a physician, this results in far-reaching consequences that affect entire healthcare systems.
For improved care and reduced wait times in urban areas, access to physicians and timely care is needed. Telemedicine connects patients and providers whether they are across the street or across the town, state or country. And providers across geographic markets can see more patients in less time, which means reduced patient wait times that can benefit the provider’s bottom line.