Telemedicine: Risk and Reward


Aging workforce is a key driver of healthcare demand and delivery.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016, adults over the age of 65 accounted for 15.2% of the total population. So it should come as no surprise that in the final quarter of 2017, health care surpassed both manufacturing and retail as the largest employer in the country. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic calls this the healthcare boom

But healthcare professionals are aging along with the general population and many commentators predict a shortage of trained medical professionals to treat our growing and aging population.  When healthcare professionals themselves age out of the workforce, how will the healthcare industry fill this gap and how will these innovations affect the healthcare industry in the long term?

Many health care employers are developing strategies to address this gap by hiring temporary or freelance professionals. This gig economy, the labor market characterized by independent contract employees or freelance workers, makes staffing easier as hospitals and medical facilities hire locum tenens and other “contingent workers” to fill their needs.

Finding a temporary hire though can be challenging; vetting a temporary hire for competency, knowledge and experience is a time-consuming task.  So many providers are turning to improving efficiencies through technology based delivery systems or telemedicine services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines telemedicine as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications”.  In a nutshell, telemedicine is the remote delivery of patient care via electronic communication.

With the growing demand for quality medical care and the shrinking supply of providers, telemedicine provides a tool to improve access to health care and, for employers, represents yet another shift to a digital world.   Health care organizations and employers view telemedicine as a welcome alternative to time-consuming office visits.   

But while telemedicine can reduce costs, eliminate the need for in-person, in-office visits and improve better access to specialists, innovation comes with some potential downsides to both the patient and provider. When patients rely on on-demand telemedicine services or are seen by freelance professionals, there may be an increased risk that the healthcare professional will have an incomplete patient history and access to patient records and quality of care may suffer.  Likewise, patients and providers alike lose the personal touch that comes with face to face interaction.

In the end, technology can address data solutions for privacy, maintenance and accessibility of patient records, thereby providing better continuity of care, but many of the ultimate determinations in health care continue to require human interaction either in person or at a distance, because all patients are, foremost, humans.

Adam Laughton on Seyfarth Shaw's Health Law team recently provided an update on legislation in Texas allowing more expansive uses of telemedicine.  


Cassie Peterson