Many providers are struggling to find a way to increase patient engagement, and any methods they employ must overcome both real and perceived barriers to care while controlling delivery costs. Telemedicine, a rapidly growing sector of the health care economy, may help.

State of Telemedicine in Hospitals

According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), more than half of all hospitals in the U.S. now use some type of telemedicine. The most common form is teleradiology, in which radiologists interpret tests, images and scans from a separate location. However, telemedicine could work for any visit that doesn’t require an in-person interaction or exam.

In 2011, the Veterans Health Administration delivered more than 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine. In 2015, nearly 58 percent of health information technology executives reported that the facilities in which they work engaged some form of telemedicine, according to a HIMSS Telemedicine Survey. Seventy percent of the facilities implementing telemedicine specifically use two-way video — the most common form of telemedicine today.

During a time when patient engagement is paramount, forward-thinking organizations are maximizing their telemedicine investments. These investments not only reduce costs, but also foster more meaningful relationships with patients and their families.

Four Reasons to Use Telemedicine

Health care executives should consider these four reasons when evaluating the role of telemedicine for patient engagement and other strategic executive initiatives:

Better access to care in federally designated underserved areas. There are approximately 15,000 primary care, dental health and mental health Healthcare Professional Shortage Areas identified by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Eighty million people, for example, live in federally designated areas that lack sufficient mental health providers. Telemedicine easily can reach these and other individuals for whom access is a real concern. Simply by improving access to care, providers engage patients more effectively.

Reduced costs through care delivery in lower-acuity settings. Consider patients admitted with neurological disorders that affect movement. Many of these individuals have a coexisting mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. When left untreated, these conditions adversely affect any medical intervention applied to the movement disorder. Telemental health services are an accessible way to offer patients dual therapy within the same care setting — or at a more economical step-down care setting.

The same could be said for recently discharged patients who require speech therapy but are unable to travel due to a physical limitation. Telemedicine can bring this therapy right into a patient’s home during the recovery period. Case managers can also follow up with them virtually to monitor status, prevent readmissions, communicate with home health professionals and assist with chronic condition management.

Greater patient convenience within competitive markets. Patients are more likely to seek treatment and comply with recommendations when they know it won’t result in significant time, money or personal burden. Consider transplant patients who receive ongoing care from specialized providers located hundreds of miles from home. Allowing transplant recipients to communicate with their providers via telemedicine technology cuts costly travel expenses and personal burdens. It also increases the likelihood patients will comply with post-discharge recommendations — thereby, reducing readmission risk and improving care outcomes.

Furthermore, telemedicine appeals to individuals whose schedules don’t permit time to participate in preventive, follow-up or routine health-related activities. This includes people who can’t take time off from work, students who don’t have time or access to transportation, those who have child care obligations, and elderly patients who are unable to travel.

Consider this example: A busy business executive has a rash. Rather than schedule an in-person visit with his primary care physician, he engages in a 15-minute telemedicine visit to discuss his symptoms and show the physician. The virtual physician sends an electronic prescription to the executive’s pharmacy and he picks it up an hour later.

Warmer handoffs between providers for care transitions, as well as better access to specialists. In a digital world, it’s much easier and more clinically effective to support warm handoffs during transitions of care. Instead of simply giving the patient an order and a business card for therapy or specialist follow-up, providers can host virtual visits and real-time introductions using telemedicine.

For example, a receptionist at the primary care physician’s office can call a cardiologist’s office immediately after the visit and make the personal connection for a patient who requires further evaluation of a heart condition. The patient is more likely to follow through with the specialist’s appointment after such an introduction is made.

Warmer patient handoffs also diffuse patient dissatisfaction and reduce the risk of readmissions.

Finally, telemedicine technology provides an accessible gateway to specialists worldwide for hospitals, private clinicians and patients. Hospitals tap into worldwide expertise or provide coverage during off hours. For example, a hospital in the U.S. will engage in telemedicine with a specialist in India to provide coverage throughout the overnight hours. Providing patients and their caregivers with unlimited access to specialists enhances the quality of care and allows providers to make more informed decisions.

The Future of Telemedicine

Although telemedicine is still in its infancy, providers are embracing the technology as payers expand reimbursement models for these services. According to a 2015 ATA analysis, 48 state Medicaid programs have some type of coverage for telemedicine. In addition, 29 states and the District of Columbia require that private insurers cover telehealth the same way they cover in-person services.