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Despite the fact that telehealth – meaning “health at a distance” – has been a common term used for decades, it is only recently that most healthcare executives have become familiar with the practical aspects of the idea. Thankfully, things are changing rapidly as telemedicine is now a staple practice of many of the biggest companies on the planet. In industries as wide-ranging as oil and gas, cruise ships, aviation, and even healthcare insurance providers, now regularly rely on telemedicine to deliver healthcare services.

Despite the growing trend, many entrenched healthcare executives need convincing that telemedicine is something important enough to merit their attention. The best way to convince a healthcare executive of the benefit of telemedicine is to show them just how it can save both time and money.

“Companies all around the globe have discovered that employer-provided telemedicine services gives their employees better access to vital healthcare, reduces absenteeism, and greatly improves employee productivity,” said Rob Sprang, the President of the Center for Telehealth and e-Health Law.

employee-health-benefitTelemedicine can be especially useful when employees are spread out in different physical locations, and may be in remote areas where standard healthcare facilities are difficult to access, or are far away. The coal industry, in particular, has discovered the benefits of telemedicine. In 2006, Alliance Coal Company implemented a test program to give their employees on-site telemedicine healthcare at five different coal mines located in remote areas of Kentucky.

“That project was such a huge win for the company that now Alliance Coal has a telemedicine clinic at all of its coal mines, providing healthcare services to workers in six states,” said Sprang. The success of the telemedicine program in the coal industry offers concrete proof to other industries that remote healthcare services are an effective solution for industries with employees working in remote locations.

No longer a strange new concept, telemedicine is expanding every year into more traditional industries as well. It is thanks to improvements in remote communication technologies and digital infrastructure that a chat with doctors online has become cheaper, more effective, and simpler to implement than ever before. Even large companies like Verizon, Apple, IBM, and AT&T are now in the process of implementing their own telemedicine programs to offer their employees cheaper and more effective healthcare services.

The one obstacle yet to be overcome is the sluggish pace at which federal and state laws have been able to keep up with the changing needs of this service. Unfortunately, this means that currently many telemedicine services are not legal, even if the technology exists to make them feasible. If a person’s cardiologist in Illinois examines a patient in California via a telemedicine link, this may satisfy all parties that proper healthcare has been delivered. But afterwards, if the cardiologist writes a prescription for the patient, this is not possible due to restrictions in California state law against online doctors, especially if the cardiologist is not licensed to practice medicine in California. Other state laws require that only an in-person examination is permissible.

In a recent report published by the Center for Telehealth and e-Health Law, entitled “Internet and Telemedicine Prescribing: Survey of Individual Policies and Regulations in the 50 States”, it was discovered that approximately 65% of states ban a physician from prescribing medicine without a face-to-face examination of the patient by the docto. Furthermore, only 12 states have legislation in place that specifically authorize online doctor consultations to take place, stipulating only that the medical standards of care must be upheld for each examination.

Healthcare executives would be wise to focus their attention on federal and state laws that address the legal boundaries of what types of telemedicine are permissible under current law. Even as telemedicine networks are busily being built and packaged to be sold to to large corporations, it is not always clear that these systems are fully compliant with current laws. Should a company buy a turnkey telemedicine system without first verifying that all aspects of that system are in full compliance with the law, the company may be inadvertently exposing itself to significant risk.

Thankfully, the state of telemedicine is quite healthy, as it offers a cost-effective and safe new way to deliver quality healthcare to individuals, particularly employees who are located in remote areas around the world. Still though, before a company begins to consider whether to adopt a telemedicine program, they should perform their due diligence on the changing standards and requirements of federal and state law.

As a high-ranking healthcare executive, the most important take away with healthcare is to be mindful that not all telemedicine programs are of equal value. Remaining educated and staying abreast of the changing legal situation will give you the tools to develop and implement a telemedicine program for your company that is cost-effective, safe, and in compliance with all laws and regulations.