Telemedicine- Just A Fancy Word For Plain Old Medicine?

Posted On Monday, October 24, 2016

Although “telemedicine” is not some new type of medical breakthrough but rather a vehicle for the delivery of “medicine”, its wide-spread use in delivering medical care in many different scenarios can get bogged down by serious regulatory issues such as: the lack of medical license reciprocity among the states (notwithstanding an increasing number of states adopting the Federation of State Medical Boards Interstate Medical Licensure Compact); the type of informed consent that needs to be given before care is rendered via telemedicine; differing opinions from state-to-state about the standards of care specific to medical care delivered via “telemedicine”; inefficient availability of patient’s medical records and the privacy of those records from state-to-state; requirements for certificates of need in some states to practice even basic forms of medicine; even the types of entities that can legally employ doctors varies among the states.  A high profile example of the challenge of standard of care issue’s confronting medical boards is well documented in the high-profile Texas cases involving Teladoc.

But numerous other states are having their own challenges that are not much different from Texas.  For example, Ohio and Arkansas have had their own challenges.

Even in the absence of these regulatory issues in some states, you still have the fact that health insurers’ payment for telemedicine services currently amounts to less than 1 percent of all of the reimbursements paid to health care providers and health care facilities, although there is some movement on these fronts too.

While the promise of telemedicine technology as a form of connecting providers with their patients continues to innovate exponentially, adoption is way behind innovation.  The hot topic for the past several years that garners the most news coverage is “convenience care”, but that is just one aspect of the true value that telemedicine can bring to the table in the delivery of medical care.  The real value of telemedicine can already be seen in “tele”stroke, “tele”pathology, and “tele”radiology programs that have well-documented success in larger health systems and even smaller ones too.  And the good news about the “non-convenience care” telemedicine programs is that they have fewer regulatory hurdles to address.  Curiously though, even these programs have not had universal adoption.

Still, there is one place in the United States where telemedicine is really taking off unencumbered and leading the way.  The United States Department of Veterans Health Administration (“VA”). 

In a recent article written by Greg Slabodkin and published in Health Data Management, it was reported that “2015 was a banner year for telemedicine at the VA, which conducted 2.14 million telehealth visits, reaching more than 677,000 veterans—or 12 percent of all vets—using real-time telemedicine, home telehealth care, and store-and-forward telemedicine”.  The article also points out that the “VA reported that home telehealth reduced hospital bed days of care by 58 percent, hospital admissions by 32 percent, while telemental health reduced psych bed days of care by 35 percent” and, according to the acting Executive Director of telehealth at the VA, Dr. Kevin Galpin, telemedicine is “mission critical”.

Mr. Sladbodkin’s article also points out the skepticism of some members of Congress about the VA’s telemedicine program.  Skepticism notwithstanding, it is nonetheless remarkable that the VA can even consider such an ambitious telemedicine program at all, let alone deem it to be “mission critical”.   Yet, when you think about it for a moment, it is not really that remarkable at all, because unlike everyone else, the regulatory hurdles that the VA faces in its embrace of telemedicine are few. 

For example:    

  • Cross-Border Licensure:  VA providers are only required to have one state-issued medical license to practice in any state if both the physician and patient, at the time of the telemedicine visit, are located in federally-owned facilities.
  • Other Regulatory Issues: Either non-existent due to federal preemption or certainly less of a hindrance.
  • Medical Records Interoperability: For the most part, active military and veteran medical records are available regardless of where they are located at the time care is sought.
  • Reimbursement:  The VA is funded by an annual budget from Congress enabling the VA to utilize telemedicine in the absence of reimbursement concerns.     

The early success of the VA’s telemedicine program is not really all that surprising.  It is the same type of care that you would receive had it been done in-person, but in this case, delivered via a different (and more modern) method of communication.  It enables the VA to harness telemedicine’s potential for efficiencies and better quality of care, which the VA desires to demonstrate and achieve.  The VA’s telemedicine program is detailed at  

If you would like to watch just one aspect of the VA’s use of “telemedicine” in the context of veteran’s continued mental well-being while in a VA facility, watch this VA produced video.

As the VA continues to document the successes of telemedicine across many different disciplines of medicine, their successes should advance telemedicine as being “mission critical” for all health care providers throughout the United States.