Businesses understand today that customers want more than one way to interact with them. Ordering products online. Checking reviews on mobile apps. Joining company communities on social media.
2019 saw healthcare’s evolution in the same multi-channel direction. No longer is it a single visit to the doctor or hospital. Today’s healthcare is a series of interactions with multiple access points or “front doors,” some personal, some digital—outpatient clinic visits, email conversations with doctors or clinical staff, online checking of lab results or Q&As on a patient portal, virtual doctor visits.
It was the new model of healthcare in 2019. And it’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in my years as a physician and over the past decade as CEO and President of Eagle Telemedicine.
According to the American Hospital Association, 76 percent of U.S. hospitals connect patients to healthcare services through videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults and wireless communications. That’s the highest number ever. Outside the hospital, direct-to-consumer telemedicine is growing, too—with insurance claims filed for telehealth services up 53 percent this year, greatly outpacing claims filed for visits to urgent care clinics, retail clinics and ambulatory surgical centers, according to a recent report by the American Medical Association.
Today, we expect our healthcare to be delivered through the same channels we use to communicate with family, friends and colleagues. (In fact, I just texted my confirmation of an appointment with my own family doctor next week.) We want frequent contact, fast answers. We want a convenient way to incorporate healthcare into our daily lives.
And telemedicine has taken its rightful place as one of the access points through which Americans get that care. From chronic care management to post-hospital follow-up to support for on-the-ground hospital staff, telemedicine is helping make the new model possible. It’s just good business.
2019: A good year for telemedicine and for Eagle
In the midst of this transition and the growing public acceptance of digital healthcare, 2019 was a good year for telemedicine and for Eagle. In particular, we saw strong growth and strong results in our TeleStroke and Tele-ID programs.
For example, one rural Kentucky partner hospital saw its neurology transfers drop from 10 per month to five per month with our TeleStroke program. More details about the program can be found in a case study we published in October 2019.
As we predicted, we also saw the growth of Tele-ID programs in 2019. Infectious disease treatment is a specialty that fits very well with telemedicine because it involves work that is more cognitive and less procedural—assessing slides and lab tests, prescribing medications, etc. Hospitals are especially impressed when they see how a Tele-ID specialist’s judicious use of expensive antibiotics can save money, while not compromising quality of care.
One Eagle hospital partner reduced ID transfers from 50 percent to zero as a result of our program. The hospital’s savings exceeded program costs, and acceptance by patients and staff has pleased everyone involved. We shared more details about the program in a case study we produced in May of this year.
The physician shortage got even more real in 2019
The 2019 growth in TeleStroke was fueled somewhat by Congressional passage of the FAST Act in 2018—the bill that expanded Medicare reimbursement for TeleStroke treatment beyond rural hospitals to urban and suburban facilities. But what has contributed more to the growth, at our company, at least, is the rapid depletion of available specialists—including neurologists—from rural American communities.
We’ve all seen the figures about American’s aging population. By 2030, every Baby Boomer will be age 65 or older, which means that one out of every five U.S. citizens will be retirement age. Older people will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history, while the ratio of working-age adults for every retirement-age person will continue to drop.
These numbers are often mentioned when we talk about the growing number of Americans who will need healthcare services in the coming years. We also hear the numbers when we talk about the declining number of physicians to care for America’s growing elderly.
Statistics are one thing, however. Real-life experience is another. And hearing practically every week about the lack of physicians, especially in areas like neurology, was my biggest wake-up call in 2019.
The problem isn’t just a number we read in the medical journals. It’s real. We so often hear of staff shortages as a result of an older local physician’s retirement or desire to cut back on call duties. The problem is there just aren’t younger physicians to replace them. It’s one of the challenges telemedicine helped hospitals solve in 2019 … and we’ll continue to do so in 2020.
Change for the better
I’ll devote my next blog to predictions for telemedicine in the new year.
For now, suffice it to say that our healthcare environment has changed radically this decade in a way that I never could have predicted when I began my career as a physician in the 1980s.
Given the nagging physician shortage, it’s change that had to happen―change that reflects the powerful role of technology in our lives today, whether healthcare-related or not. When you see how telemedicine can deliver technology-enabled care immediately to the nation’s most underserved areas, you have to agree it’s change for the better.