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6 Myths That We Need to Address in Telemedicine

When I told friends that I was joining the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), their response was either, “What is that?” or “Isn’t that how people get care in rural parts of the country?” Their view of telemedicine was limited. They assumed it was a medical subspecialty, operating on its own. However, I believe telemedicine is medicine, and the market is much bigger and broader than my friends’ perceptions would suggest.

Telemedicine, or virtual care, represents a rapidly growing sector of the health industry. Its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For the consumer who is trying to avoid a cross-town trip on public transportation to see their provider, it represents convenience. For the parents whose newborn is in a neonatal intensive care unit several hours from home, it is a chance to be “there” with their child while taking care of the rest of their family. For the provider who needs to consult with a colleague — even though they’re in different time zones — it means a better chance of a correct diagnosis and treatment for the patient. And for the millions of Americans who live in communities that have inadequate mental health resources, telemedicine is quite literally the only viable option.

That is the exhilarating part of why we’re here. We want to ensure people have access to care where and when they need it, and when they do, that they know it is safe, effective and appropriate. We also want to ensure that providers can do more good for more people. If you see “tele-everything” as a way of delivering care — taking advantage of technology to deliver on this great promise — then it is a social injustice that it isn’t more broadly available. Yet there are arcane laws, regulations and reimbursement barriers that are still in place that negatively impact the opportunities in telehealth.

Why is it that after 25 years, in which we’ve seen tremendous innovation with telemedicine — including the fact that most large employers now offer virtual health services to their employees — “tele-everything” is not more broadly available, the way it is for Kaiser Permanente health plan members? I’ve identified six myths that I believe cause confusion in the market and ultimately inhibit the expansion of telehealth in the United States — myths we should address and disprove in rapid order.

1. Telemedicine is only for rural areas

While access to medical resources has improved in many communities thanks to virtual services, “medical deserts” exist in urban communities as well.

2. Telemedicine is impersonal

If you think using FaceTime is impersonal, then you might agree with this. But the experience of millions of consumers suggests otherwise.

3. Telemedicine is more expensive

While it’s likely true that more people can now readily access health resources, telemedicine is also used to redirect people to more appropriate and typically less expensive venues for care (going to an urgent care center and not the emergency room, for example). And some visits may seem duplicative, but the use of technology, artificial intelligence and other tools will reduce those over time.

4. Telemedicine providers overprescribe antibiotics and opioids

To paraphrase Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “Jerry Maguire” character, “Show me the data.”

5. Telemedicine is a threat to clinicians

I hear something different from clinicians. They talk about having greater control over their hours and schedules, being able to communicate with patients and colleagues more easily and deploying a more consistent approach in their patients’ treatments.

6. Telemedicine is the same as synchronous video visits

This has historically been true, but we must now realize that technologies that help providers scale their services go much further than video visits. Asynchronous technologies including remote monitoring, feedback and even automated processes must now fit within our broader definition.

To ensure the benefits of telemedicine and virtual care are broadly available — to meet people where and when they need it — we need to remove remaining barriers. At the ATA, we intend to do just that.

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