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Dr. Cell Phone Will See You Now

Several years ago, my Forbes magazine editor asked a group of us contributors to write an article about some topic that most people weren’t aware of then but would be a household word within five years. I chose to write about telemedicine.
Telemedicine, which is defined as “the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology,” took a little longer than five years to catch on. But it’s here now, and it’s increasingly becoming part of mainstream medicine.
There were several factors that hindered telemedicine’s adoption, and one primary factor that accelerated its embrace by patients and health care providers.
As to the hinderances: 

  • Health insurers weren’t sure how to reimburse for telemedicine visits, if they reimbursed at all. 

  • States had varying laws regarding whether a patient could see a physician licensed in a different state without going to that state.  

  • Some physicians can be slow to embrace new technology that upsets the current paradigm.  

  • And many patients preferred seeing their health care providers in person.

The factor that changed all of that? The pandemic, which made telemedicine visits for some patients and medical conditions both practical and advisable.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the states and state medical societies, and health insurers have been implementing policies that allow telemedicine to grow—and evolve. Including incorporating it into Medicaid and Medicare.
One contributing factor is that people frequently turn to their mobile devices with medical questions. Google reported in 2019 that it received 1 billion health-related searches every day. As this graph from Statista shows, European Union health-related Google searches have grown significantly over the past decade.

Of course, this trend has its critics. Some health care providers and others are understandably concerned that patients may get misinformation from their searches—and trust that information, or misinformation, more than they trust their health care providers.
But the trend is too important to stop. Telemedicine can help address the longstanding problem of rural patient access to physicians or specialists. It can minimize waiting rooms full of sick patients and multiply physicians’ ability to see patients.
Search engines allow patients to do a little research before seeing a physician, so that they ask better-informed questions. And they allow patients to use online health care provider reviews.
Mobile devices are not a replacement for doctors; they are simply a tool to enhance and improve health care services. Federal and state laws and regulations need to recognize these opportunities—and challenges—and respond accordingly.