Congress' new telehealth bill is a step in the right direction

October 31, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Four members of the House of Representatives have introduced a bill that would expand the ability Medicare and Medicaid to pay for telehealth / telemedicine services. While it does not appear that H.R. 3306, the "Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013," would enable First Stop Health to bill Medicare or Medicaid for our services, the bill is still a step in the right direction.

Bill author Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) is correct when he writes in his blog: "Telemedicine works. It extends care to patients. It serves our aging population." It also saves money, for patients and other payers.

The use of the telephone and informational technologies to provide healthcare remotely might sound rather 21st Century, but when we define telemedicine, we find it's actually far from new. In fact, in the "good old days," people could actually call their doctors on the phone if they had any concerns. They could describe their symptoms and ask whether to go to the emergency room, or the pharmacy, or to just stay put and wait it out.

Modern telemedicine may be more technologically sophisticated. At its heart, however, it's an effort to replicate the best parts of this mini triage-by-phone that was once so commonplace. The benefits of talking to a doctor by phone are clear: it saves time, is convenient, and provides peace of mind.

And as mobile phone advancements in particular continue to race forward, telemedicine will see many changes in the years to come. Just one example: Call your telemedicine service provider about a rash. Hold your phone's camera up to the area in question. If the doc can see the rash, he can often make a more accurate diagnosis.

The best way to take advantage of these advancements is to get started using a telemedicine service now. A telemedicine service is by no means a replacement for a primary care physician whom you visit in person on a regular basis. But if you need an answer to a question fast, and don't want to use the emergency room as your fallback, establishing a relationship with a doctor by phone really will save you time and money. It also makes preventive medicine more convenient, and perhaps most importantly, can help you make decisions on the various treatment options when you just don't know what to do.

Originally published Oct 31, 2013 2:01:00 PM.