The Five Biggest Trends Shaping Inpatient Telemedicine for 2018

Guest post by Dr. Talbot “Mac” McCormick, president and CEO, Eagle Telemedicine.

Dr. Talbot "Mac" McCormick
Dr. Talbot “Mac” McCormick

Looking back at 2017, we see some of the same significant trends that have been gaining momentum, along with a few newcomers. Together, these top-five trends will impact hospital medicine in 2018 in both traditional and unexpected ways.

Growth Despite Reimbursement Parity Confusion

The telemedicine industry’s growth continues rapidly despite the widespread confusion over reimbursement for telemed services from state to state. Why? Because most hospital leaders understand they face far more significant costs from the lack of proper physician and specialist coverage than they ever would by a less-than-optimal reimbursement rate for telehealth. A teleneurologist consult in the ED might be reimbursed at a lower rate than an in-person visit with an onsite neurologist, but keeping the stroke patient in the hospital could mean a $10,000 DRG reimbursement that the hospital would lose if the patient had to be shipped to a tertiary referral center for treatment. Which is the smarter investment? And more importantly, which scenario better serves the patient?

Expansion into New Types of Inpatient Settings

As micro-hospitals and long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs) grow, they are looking for single-source providers of solutions, with one point of contact, one operating system, and one set of tools and processes. Telemedicine fits their models very well, helping them avoid contracting with a wide array of specialists to meet their patients’ needs. Micro-hospitals are already established in 19 states, and LTACHs are growing since a federal moratorium prohibiting their expansion expired on Sept. 30, 2017. Being able to access a variety of specialists via telemedicine, depending on the needs of patients on any day, is something these facilities need in order to fulfill their commitment to the communities they serve.

Increasing Use of Telemedicine in Metropolitan Hospitals

Rural hospitals have long been a sweet spot for telemedicine. The physician shortage is certainly more acute in rural areas as community hospitals struggle to recruit physicians, keep beds filled and, in many cases, stay solvent. Recently, however, more metropolitan hospitals have seen the advantage of telemedicine in two key areas. When cross-coverage calls are handled by telemedicine teams, it takes considerable pressure off night hospitalists who may already be overwhelmed with admissions, and yet their phones are ringing constantly with requests to respond to patient issues on the floor.

By the same token, telemedicine offers “surge protection,” providing assistance with patient admissions during ED bottlenecks, and cost-effective relief from hospitalist overload.

Virtual Partners for Solo Specialists

Individual specialists in pulmonology, cardiology, nephrology, and other areas might be on call with a local hospital 24/7/365, with no backup for nights, weekends, holidays, or vacations. Telemedicine specialists share coverage with these physicians—individuals and small practices alike—to help ease the demands on them. For example, a community hospital has a local cardiologist on call 15 days a month, and a telecardiology team on call the other 15 days of the month. This is just one real-life example we’ve seen as hospitals find new ways to meet the challenges of another trend that just keeps growing: physician burnout, coupled with a greater value placed on work-life balance than in generations past.

A Sustainable Solution to the Doctor Shortage

Stories about the physician shortage have become everyday news. In 2017, they were bleaker than ever. There are two obvious remedies for the crisis: hospitals often use temporary “fixes,” hiring locum tenens physicians or “moonlighters” to fill in the gaps. It’s an expensive solution, and does little to solve the problem for the long term. More and more hospitals understand this, and are recognizing that telemedicine teams aren’t just quick fixes, but are fully equipped to become an established part of their onsite clinical team. We fully expect to see hospitals and health systems further integrate telemedicine into their provider model as a sustainable solution to the worsening shortage.

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