Health care’s saving grace: Is Telemedicine the real deal or a privacy nightmare?

Health care professionals are constantly developing and brainstorming innovative ways to increase access to healthcare in an affordable way. Is telemedicine the solution to the health care industry’s problems?

The American Telemedicine Association defines telemedicine as the “use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.” Although telemedicine is considered a recent trend, telemedicine has been utilized for over 40 years and continues to grow in popularity. Today, telemedicine is predicted by many healthcare professionals and public health analysts to drastically cut annual healthcare spending. One report claims that in the coming years, telemedicine will cut annual healthcare spending by $60 billion; $40 billion in eliminating roughly two-thirds of unneeded emergency room visits and $20 billion in by replacing one-third of physician visits. Analysts have also noted that an expansion in Medicare coverage for telemedicine services will further increase annual savings.

Some health care professionals, however, are not sold on telemedicines projected savings. Dr. Jha stated, “You do the telemedicine; it leads to more tests. It leads to more follow-up visits. And, over time, when you look at the data, it turns out that telemedicine overall is not necessarily a big cost saver.” Despite this, the overwhelming message from health care professionals and communication professionals alike is that telemedicine works and will account for unprecedented savings.

Currently, Medicare only covers telemedicine services for rural and medically underserved areas when video conferencing is used. As telemedicine continues to develop public health professionals will keep a watchful eye on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to see if reimbursement for telemedicine services expands.

Telemedicine seems to be the golden child in healthcare; it cuts costs, increases access to care, and spurs innovation. Despite this, advancements in telemedicine possess major privacy concerns. As telemedicine continues to evolve from its video conference/consultation base to more services are being offered via mobile apps and text messages, how is a patient’s information being managed and protected?

Telemedicine requires developers, consumers, and physicians alike to consider if information from a video consultations will be recorded, or how data collected from a mobile health app will be stored, and whether federal or state privacy law is violated with such practices. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), recognizing the need for guidance in the telehealth arena, provide resources for providers, implementers and consumers to address the many privacy issues related to health and mobile devices. ONC harps on the importance of encryption and being an informed consumer to help decrease privacy violations. Even still, federal, state, and local governments will continue to develop laws and regulations that address the ever-changing privacy landscape in light of continued telehealth innovation.

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