The United States boasts the largest market for the use of telehealth and telemedicine services, generating $14 billion in global business last year with a predicted increase of nearly $20 billion by as early as 2020. Despite its size, the U.S. telehealth industry faces issues with broadband connectivity, regulatory hurdles like provider licensing restrictions and limitations on prescription orders and concerns over its potential to cause even more overutilization of healthcare services.
At the simplest level, “telemedicine” or “telehealth” is all healthcare practiced at a distance, ranging from the telephone call to remote surgery. More specifically, telehealth is the provision of healthcare consultation and education using telecommunication networks to transfer information. Telehealth is not a specific technique or piece of equipment; it is a process of delivering healthcare services. It involves combining traditional medical care with the efficiency of current telecommunications technology to deliver healthcare on a global scale.
In recent years the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken a closer look at broadband enabled healthcare technology and the regulatory challenges that face its implementation and use. The Connect2Health Task Force was formed in 2014 by the FCC in order to “bring together the expertise of the FCC on the critical intersection of broadband, advanced technology, and health.” The task force plans to launch a nationwide mapping tool that provides detailed, integrated data on broadband availability and health in the very near future. According to the FCC, the mapping tool will help show areas of poor health, limited broadband access and areas with infrastructure gaps with detail down to the county level.
While the FCC works toward national access to telehealth services, private companies like Apple and American Well are working to develop more immediate avenues for access to telehealth programs in existing health communities. Apple provides support for app developers who work to create apps that track health data with the goal of sharing that data directly with healthcare providers. Recently, the Cleveland Clinic and Nemours Children’s Health System in Florida announced that they would partner with American Well to provide telehealth services directly to their patient populations through online telehealth “exchanges.” These exchanges will allow patients to select the provider he/she will see during the telehealth visit, all while using their insurance to pay for the visit. The exchanges will be able to connect patients to providers on a constant, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, basis including nurse practitioners at the Cleveland Clinic and board-certified pediatricians at Nemours.
This increase in the availability and accessibility of healthcare through telehealth services has the potential to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals throughout the U.S. It will be important for federal and state regulators to continue to work together to respond to this ever-developing practice.