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Telemedicine Is at a Tipping Point, Not an Inflection Point

The recent advances of telemedicine do not guarantee its success.

Alexandra A life without animals is not worth living from Pixabay
Source: Alexandra A life without animals is not worth living from Pixabay

Today, telemedicine isn't at an inflection point. It's at a tipping point. Most pundits and professionals have seen the advances in telemedicine, associated them with COVID-19, and have suggested that the era of telemedicine has arrived. And yes, telemedicine has become an established practice modality embraced by some clinicians and patients. But a closer look reveals that this rapid upswing in usage is now associated with a fairly rapid decrease in telemedicine visits. And while this may be just a function of a simple adoption curve, it would be tragic to consider telemedicine as adopted with little or no added or sustained effort to ensure that this clinical modality is here to stay.

The simple reality is that telemedicine has become available to the clinical work stream, but this brief exposure has revealed advantages and disadvantages. This has left us on a path where the outcome is still uncertain. Today, many see telemedicine as part of a triple inflection point: technological availability, advances in legal, regulatory and payor approval combined with a moral imperative.

But inertia is a powerful force. And so is the office visit.

My preliminary conversations have indicated that, in general, patients are willing to substitute the office visit – and all the associated hassles such as travel and waiting time — with a telemedicine visit. Conversely, my analysis has shown that many physicians still enjoy the complacency of that cozy office chair and the trappings of an office visit where patients come to them and the technological convenience of digital health is less an option and more of a hassle.

The toothpaste is out of the tube.

Nevertheless, the “toothpaste” of telemedicine is certainly here. But we have to wonder if all we have is a big technological mess or a sustainable option that doctors, patients, and payors can embrace.

Our challenge is to do much more than transfer an office visit to a Zoom call. Available technologies combined with user education can transform this experience into something that is enjoyable and provides a valuable clinical experience. This is a dramatic contrast to today's perspective that positions telemedicine as an “event of convenience” versus a tool of medical excellence.

The opportunities are here for telemedicine to become an ongoing and continuous engagement where clinicians can leverage technology to advance care, not just provide a bland substitute for the office visit. The many and varied digital health tools available today can potentially provide a unique and appropriate window into patients' real lives with real-time data and analytics. Simply put, the office can come to the patient! And the reality may just become that the office visit is less an intrusion into our lifestyle, but a part of a more dynamic continuum of care where that visit becomes less the rule and more the exception.

The technology is here. It is up to us to make it happen.

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