Medicare considers telemedicine

Photo courtesy of  UPMC

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Medicare celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. In honor of that momentous occasion, Congress is considering changes that would modernize the program, including allowing it to pay for a broader array of telemedicine treatments to more people.

Currently, Medicare is restricted to paying for a limited amount of telemedicine used to deliver health care to rural areas, although the technology has been in use for many years in settings where Medicare hasn’t been a frequent payer.

For instance, the Veterans Health Administration has a Telehealth division where patients can consult with their doctors without leaving their own homes. Prison systems have been using telemedicine for years to provide routine care to inmates. Corporations are adopting these programs as part of their employee health insurance offerings.

Advantages of telemedicine

Among those supporting the change is Dr. Lawrence R. Wechsler, chairman of the Department of Neurology, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, and vice president of telemedicine services. He says that in the treatment of stroke, telemedicine can offer a huge advantage because you can be treated within minutes by an on-call vascular neurologist hundreds of miles away from your local hospital. The expert doctor, working remotely, can do long-distance testing and prescribe medicine and other therapies remotely in time to reduce stroke-related disabilities. The University of Pittsburgh is already offering these services, but it isn’t being reimbursed by Medicare, Wechsler says.

Wechsler also thinks Medicare recipients should support changes in Medicare rules to enable greater use for these reasons:

  • Seeing the doctor via phone is good enough for many purposes. This would solve problems related to transportation and physical limitations for older people.
  • Home monitoring and interaction of those in need of long-term care could easily be accomplished remotely, trimming the costs of both professional and family care.

Using telemedicine more broadly could also cut insurance costs. Human resources consultancy Towers Watson estimates the savings at $6 billion a year for companies that buy coverage for employees.

Would you see your doctor via your mobile phone if you could?

Worried? You can already Call the telemedicine doc.