Telehealth, online appointments could ease healthcare access jam

August 27, 2009
Allison Tsai
Allison Tsai

Universal coverage could clog the healthcare system unless new care-delivery models are created, such as telehealth and online doctor appointments, according to a recent survey.

Universal coverage could clog the healthcare system unless new care-delivery models are created, such as telehealth and online doctor appointments, according to a survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The survey questioned 1,000 American consumers, and showed that 55 percent of respondents are concerned that universal health coverage will not ensure equal access to care because of capacity constraints, especially in hospital emergency rooms.

Americans, both insured and uninsured, are more likely to use costly hospital emergency rooms as the first point of entry into the health system, according to the report. Researchers say the quick fix would be to build bigger emergency rooms, but increasing supply would only drive up healthcare costs. Therefore, there is a need to find new ways to expand access without adding costs and, according to the survey, Americans are willing to participate in a number of alternative ways to access care.

The first alternative avenue is electronic interaction with providers and payers. Fifty percent of consumers surveyed said they would be willing to seek healthcare through the internet or other computer technology instead of face-to-face, non-emergency visits. E-mail consultation was the top choice (76 percent), followed by telehealth, question-answer consults and an online forum monitored by a doctor.

The second alternative to access was retail and worksite clinics for patients. Of consumers surveyed, 37 percent said they would likely use a worksite clinic, and 36 percent said they would use a retail health clinic.

The third alternative was the use of telehealth technologies. Telehealth is defined as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications, such as video conferencing or biometric remote monitoring. This method could expand access to specialty physicians for patients in remote and underserved areas. Seventy-three percent of consumers said they would use biometric electronic remote monitoring services to track their condition and vital signs.

A fourth alternative is shared medical appointments (SMAs). Of consumers surveyed, 28 percent said they would be willing to participate in a shared medical appointment. This would consist of a 60- to 90-minute session that includes a private or personal exam, integrated with patient education and discussion with a group of 10-to-15 people. Instituting SMAs could increase patient access and a physician’s productivity by an additional six patients during a four-hour clinic session, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.