Telemedicine Takes on Bigger Role in Kentucky Healthcare

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More and more hospitals in Kentucky are relying on telemedicine to get them through the physician-shortage crisis and the influx of uninsured patients who will be entering the system under the Affordable Care Act, Laura Ungar reports for The Courier-Journal.

Dr. Greg Jicha, a neurologist with the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, sees “the future of medicine as a progressive use of technology. Riding the wave of telemedicine is really going to increase access to care.”

The American Telemedicine Association reports the number of Americans who will receive care via telemedicine, currently at 10 million, will double in the coming years. Furthermore, private insurers, as well as Medicare, are adapting their payment models to include telemedicine.

Ungar writes, “In Kentucky, there were nearly 6,200 video-conference doctor visits in 2011, as well as about 3,000 electrocardiograms transmitted and more than 1,500 educational events using telehealth technology, according to the most recent report from the Kentucky Telehealth Network.”

The benefits of telehealth appear to be numerous, but chiefly, it cuts back on travel and transfer times for patients and doctors, as wells as costs, and opens up access for oft-neglected rural regions of the country. This is especially true for a state like Kentucky, with 61 percent of its rural communities suffering from the physician-shortage crisis.

Perhaps that is the biggest advantage of telemedicine: greater access to care, and this has been reflected across the state. Ungar relates, “Area health systems have embraced the technology. KentuckyOne Health announced last year it was opening virtual primary-care clinics in two Eastern Kentucky counties; U of L Hospital extends stroke and other services to rural areas through a remote-controlled robot; Norton Healthcare offers telemedicine services in cardiology, neurology, and infectious diseases; and at least three Baptist Health hospitals use telemedicine.” She adds that state prisons are also embracing the technology.

It’s important to note, however, that telemedicine is just one solution to the physician-shortage crisis. It’s not the cure-all solution.

For example, it can be difficult for a physician to develop a personal relationship with a patient remotely. As the article points out, such elemental aspects of the patient visit—eye contact, a distraction-free environment—can be difficult to maintain from two different locations.

There are also privacy concerns about the security of the telemedicine network and questions about how much money the technology appears to save vs. how much money it actually saves.

Nevertheless, the impact telemedicine is having on healthcare, not just in Kentucky, but across the nation, shouldn’t be underestimated. Has your organization incorporated telemedicine into its continuum of care? If so, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned about the new technology, both positive and cautionary? If not, are you considering telemedicine for your facility?

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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