Study: National telemedicine service expands healthcare access

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A study of adult users of a national telemedicine service found that it appears to be expanding access to patients who are not connected to other providers. Its users were younger, more affluent, had no established healthcare relationships and were less likely to have a follow-up visit, according to research published at Health Affairs.

The study is one of several published in the February issue--including one examining factors in hospitals' decisions to offer telehealth--that focus on the current state of connected health.

Despite the service's potential to expand access to care, little is known about those who use it and whether they receive quality care, Lori Uscher-Pines, lead author of the study and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, said in an announcement.

The researchers scrutinized records from 3,701 patient "visits" using the service. All were covered under a health plan offered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System. Those encounters were compared with peer visits to hospital emergency departments or a doctor's office for a similar problem.

Patients sought treatment for a range of issues such as acute respiratory conditions, urinary tract infections and skin problems. The researchers found little evidence of misdiagnosis or treatment failure among those who used the service.

More than one-third of visits occurred on weekends or holidays.

"The people who are attracted to this type of telemedicine may be a more technologically savvy group that has less time to obtain medical care through traditional settings," said Ateev Mehrotra, a RAND researcher and an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School.

The study on deciding factors for hospitals also determined that telehealth services are expanding access to care, and that hospitals are using it for a competitive advantage. It also found that state policies on reimbursement and licensing were major determinants in whether hospitals offered such services.

In Mississippi, a public-private partnership called the Diabetes Telehealth Network, will begin recruiting patients this spring to participate in the 18-month remote care-management program. It plans to give patients tablet computers that will help them share data about their conditions daily with caregivers.

To learn more:
- here's the abstract
- read the announcement
- here's the Health Affairs February table of contents

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