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Convenient Telemedicine Access Reduces Travel, Healthcare Costs

Telemedicine reduces healthcare costs by over $100 for patients seeking specialty treatment.

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- Convenient telemedicine can save patients time and money, with these services producing over $100 in travel time cost savings, according to experts from the University of California Davis.

Researchers, led by Chief of the UC Davis Division of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine James Marcin, looked at data from the 18+ years the organization has offered specialty care telemedicine options.

The team investigated convenience and cost reductions due to saved travel time in 19,246 telemedical visits between July 1996 and December 2013.

Specialty telemedicine visits reduced distance traveled by 5 million miles for all patients during the study period, the researchers reported. This amounted to nearly nine years’ worth of saved travel time and $3 million in saved travel costs.

These extensive savings may be due in part to UC Davis’ long history of leveraging telemedicine in specialty care.

The organization has offered telemedicine since 1992. Its telemedicine services now span 30 specialties, with centers in 150 locations in 56 out of California’s 58 counties.

That wide web of telemedicine offerings has resulted in large savings for the entire organization, but a breakdown of per-patient savings also indicates the technology’s ability to improve individual patient care.

For individual patients, reduced travel distance resulted in 278 fewer miles traveled and $156 in travel cost savings.

“Our findings confirm the benefits of telemedicine in terms of real savings to patients and to the environment,” Marcin said in a statement.

Although telemedicine has many cost and convenient care benefits, Marcin maintained that this technology is suited for some specialties better than others. For example, treatments that rely primarily on lab results or meaningful patient-provider communication can benefit from telemedicine. Other specialties that require extensive physical examination, such as orthopedics, will likely see fewer benefits.

Going forward, Marcin and his team plan to examine the outcomes benefits of telemedicine treatment versus in-person specialty care.

“I believe that telemedicine not only results in equivalent health care for patients in remote areas but better care, particularly for those with complex medical conditions,” Marcin asserted. “Our goal of telemedicine is not to save the health care system money but to improve patient care, and I believe it does this.”

Other recent research has highlighted the financial and care access consequences to telemedicine.

A study published in Health Affairs found that while telemedicine improves patient healthcare access, patients must be careful with utilization to see cost savings. The Health Affairs article investigated savings for appointment cost, not travel time costs.

Overall, telemedicine costs amounted to 50 percent of normal in-person care, and less than five percent of emergency department costs.

However, these costs savings only occur when patients replace in-person care with telemedicine, the researchers said. When patients utilize telemedicine when they otherwise would have forgone care and allowed symptoms to mitigate on their own, telemedicine results in cost increases.

In this study, more patients used telemedicine to replace in-person care than for conditions that would otherwise go untreated. However, it could have considerable financial consequences should the scale tip in the other direction.

“Because using direct-to-consumer telehealth is more convenient than traveling to a retail clinic, it may not be surprising that an even greater share of telehealth services represent new utilization,” the team explained.

“There may be a dose response with respect to convenience and utilization: the more convenient the location, the lower the threshold for seeking care and the greater the utilization may be.”

Despite that caveat, both the Health Affairs and UC Davis investigations point to the potential for telemedicine to benefit patient healthcare access. By offering lower price points for healthcare encounters presenting further cost savings due to reduced travel time, telemedicine can help present a path toward more affordable and convenient healthcare.