Published by Kim Mulford in the Courier-Post
VOORHEES – Duane Roche was in no shape to drag himself to his doctor’s office. After fending off a severe stomach virus earlier this year, his throat was so painful and inflamed, he couldn’t eat or drink.
“It wasn’t a life-threatening emergency, but it was enough that I needed to consult a doctor,” the 35-year-old recalled. Using a smartphone and an Internet connection, he sent a Virtua doctor a photo of his throat and discussed his symptoms. Within an hour, the Mullica Hill resident had a prescription in hand.
Telemedicine has been around since the invention of the telephone, doctors say, but it’s growing exponentially in United States as the practice becomes more formalized. Since 2006, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services saw its telemedicine spending jump 604 percent to $17.6 million in 2015, according to the American Telemedicine Association.
That spending is expected to soar, said Dr. James Peake, the association’s president, who spoke at a telemedicine conference hosted by Virtua earlier this month.
“The demand for this is going to be more and more, as people understand this and have better access to it,” Peake said. “I think it’s going to fundamentally restructure … health care over the course of this next decade.”
In South Jersey, Virtua and Inspira began offering virtual visits with their primary care doctors this year. Since introducing it in January, Virtua has registered 900 Teladoc users in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties. Inspira introduced its Inspira eCare program last month.
More health systems are expected to embrace telemedicine once New Jersey passes legislation regulating the practice. The state Senate and Assembly are each considering four bills related to insurance coverage and reimbursement, Medicaid spending, and state oversight.
Patients are already open to the idea, said Dr. John Matsinger, chief clinical officer for Virtua. Primary care doctors are often asked to look at pictures of swollen eyes and rashes.
“It’s technology that we’re using in everyday life,” Matsinger noted. “How do we use that to improve care and access to the community?”
The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts there will be a significant shortage of primary care doctors in the United States, perhaps as many as 90,000 doctors overall by 2025. Telemedicine could help fill in the gaps between patients’ primary care needs and expensive emergency department visits, Matsinger said.
“We have to find alternatives,” Matsinger said, “creative ways to reach a population on the go.”
Roche said he found Virtua’s service simple and easy to use, and felt better within two days of picking up his prescription. His insurance provider covered the charge, after his deductible.
“I definitely would use this again,” he said.
Virtual visits aren’t always appropriate, doctors noted, and it can’t replace a face-to-face relationship with a provider. Telemedicine should not be used for annual exams, or to prescribe opiates, for example, or for patients who are severely ill and may require emergency care.
But the practice fills a need for patients who can’t easily get to a medical provider. Using the Teladoc program, Virtua began offering virtual visits to women who need breastfeeding support after leaving the hospital. New mothers can use video conferencing over a secure network to get help from a lactation consultant.
Telemedicine will continue to grow over the next three to five years, predicted Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute.
“Legislature is going to pass a bill that supports, not suppresses this and it’s going to explode,” Schwimmer said. “We’re going to love it.”