I just recorded my heart and lung sounds using my smartphone and a device from a connected medical kit designed for home use. Listening to the recordings through my smartphone ear buds, as a physician, I found the quality to be as good as or better than listening with a conventional stethoscope. The kit also has a “no touch” thermometer, which I waved across my forehead to record my temperature. That data was then transmitted via Bluetooth to my phone.

Very soon I will be able to send my heart and lung sounds and my temperature reading to a doctor from a telemedicine service. During a video visit on my smartphone, the doctor will be able to listen to my heart and lungs, just as I did. If I need a prescription, it will be electronically transmitted to my local pharmacy. The cost for this doctor’s visit will be just $40.

And the technology is getting better every day. For example, devices already exist that can conduct other parts of the physical exam. Some capture blood pressure; others can do an ear exam.

Imagine it’s 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, and your 5-year-old child has ear pain. Today, your care options are an urgent care center or the emergency room. In a few months, you’ll have the option of recording an image of your child’s eardrum and sending that along with the child’s temperature to a doctor as part of a telemedicine visit. In addition to costing far less than an in-person visit at most types of care centers, you’ll be able to avoid traveling and waiting for care.

You will have to purchase some add-on technology for your smartphone. But it will be a one-time purchase of about $150 for a device that can be used for all family members multiple times. For patients with high deductible health plans, the savings after one visit might pay for the device.

Also see:Telehealth benefits gain wider acceptance.

Who wouldn’t use this technology for simple medical problems if it were more widely available?

But patient uptake of telemedicine has been slow. An internal Willis Towers Watson study on telemedicine usage by employees who receive employer-sponsored health care revealed that just about 10% of the visits appropriate for telemedicine took place through that method. That could change as telemedicine becomes more available, either through employers or direct patient access. There will be 1 million telemedicine visits this year. It undoubtedly will become a standard part of the medical care landscape.

But as with any new care channel developed in response to a market need for more affordable and available care, patients need to understand it. The biggest issue may be patient confusion in deciding which care channel to use. This is not a new challenge.

Think back to urgent care centers when they first appeared. Developed in the 1970s, they were viewed as somewhat radical. Now there are approximately 10,000 urgent care centers in the United States, and they are a standard part of the medical landscape. Similarly, retail clinics first appeared around 2005. They, too, were seen as radical; now there are about 2,000 retail clinics across the country, and the number continues to grow.

Research published in the American Journal of Managed Care indicates that the quality of care offered in these newer channels, for the simple medical problems they treat, is comparable or better than the care received in traditional channels. Now, we have telemedicine, with early research indicating that is benefits when used appropriately.

Quote
“From an employer’s perspective, employee education is crucial if the value of telemedicine is to be realized. That education needs to be repeated often.”

From an employer’s perspective, employee education is crucial if the value of telemedicine is to be realized. That education needs to be repeated often. Use of nurse call lines can be an effective triage tool. Software also has been developed to help patients identify the correct care choice.

Telemedicine offers potential savings to employers and employees, while improving employee medical care access and convenience. It’s worth the effort to make sure that employees know how to use it.

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Allan Khoury

Allan Khoury

Khoury, M.D., is a senior health management consultant with Willis Towers Watson.