Countering the Growing Physician Shortage with Telemedicine

America is in the middle of an increasing physician shortage. The Association of American Medical […]

America is in the middle of an increasing physician shortage. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts the deficit will reach a height of 122,000 by 2032, but the scarcity of physicians is already very real. The physician deficit, especially specialists, makes promptly helping patients in need of immediate medical attention difficult to accomplish.

Hospitals of all shapes and sizes are really struggling in today’s landscape to bring access to specialty care for the rising demand for certain diseases and conditions within our patient populations. To address this issue, hospitals across the country have adopted telemedicine programs. According to a recent telemedicine adoption survey, these programs are by-in-large being used for physician specialty support (52.2%) and surge specialty support (40.3%). However, they have also become a solid addition to offset staffing gaps (39.8%) and shore up resources for night-shift (37.1%) needs.

Among the specialties telemedicine programs reportedly support most is dermatology, across all hospital sizes. The second and third used specialties, however, differ. Mid-sized hospitals (101 – 250 beds) use endocrinology and gastroenterology telemedicine more. Small hospitals (under 100 beds) use pediatrics and maternal-fetal telemedicine more often. Thus, showing the value of telemedicine programs for specialties across the spectrum.

Telemedicine satisfaction rates 

One of the determining factors of whether these telemedicine programs are working is the satisfaction of the patients receiving telemedicine care. Telemedicine patient satisfaction is overwhelmingly positive. Clinical experiences show that patients are not just excited but genuinely thrilled to really receive the rapid care enabled by telemedicine without having to travel long distances. They can have a very meaningful care experience with a physician who just happens to be remote. Across the nation, providers report that 87.3% of patients are either satisfied or very satisfied with their telemedicine care.

Among healthcare professionals and practitioners, nurses report the highest (92%) patient satisfaction rate. This is interesting as they are often the closest to the patient’s experience and have the most relevant clinical insight. Physicians report an 87% patient satisfaction rate. Healthcare executives and administrators reported 86.5% patient satisfaction. These percentages indicate that telemedicine programs deliver an exceptional patient experience felt by everyone involved, particularly by the hands-on providers.

Interestingly, patient satisfaction rates are similar among similar-sized hospitals and hospitals in the same region. Hospitals with over 250 beds (large hospitals) have higher patient satisfaction than mid-sized and small hospitals. Additionally, the hospital location seems to impact satisfaction rates. The United States has over 90% patient satisfaction rate. However, there are slight differences among the Midwest (94.6%), Southeast (92.9%) and Northeast (90.2%). Many factors, such as similar issues among similar hospital sizes and geographical areas, may be at play here. Regardless, these numbers indicate that patients are generally happy with the care they receive from telemedicine services.

Considering the telemedicine challenges and benefits

While telemedicine seems to be the ideal solution to this ever-increasing shortage problem, it still has challenges and benefits that need to be considered before deciding to add a telemedicine program of your own. Carefully evaluating the pros and cons will help healthcare providers determine what they value in a telemedicine program and what pain points they might face. It can also help them determine how best to fix these potential issues before adding a telemedicine program, which could smooth the transition.

Telemedicine challenges 

The top challenges telemedicine programs face includes program infrastructure resources, slow physician response times and poor technology integration. Again, which challenge is more prevalent depends on the hospital size. Large hospitals report poor technology integration as their top challenge. Mid-sized hospitals report a lack of onsite resources as their greatest challenge. Small hospitals report slow telemedicine physician response times as their most significant challenge.

Overall, it really comes down to one thing: interoperability. Healthcare is still very much a disparate industry. There are EMRs, PACS systems, and SPOEs as well as charge capture systems and telemedicine carts, and they’re all separate and in some ways best-of-breed. So, you may have a best-of-breed of EMR and a best-of-breed of cart solution, but they don’t talk well with each other. So, infrastructure and resources are the top issues that still need to be sorted out to further telemedicine’s enablement.

Knowing these challenges can help inform your telemedicine program focus. It’s important to make interoperability a key decision criterion when evaluating telemedicine options. Ask the telemedicine companies under consideration how they plan to integrate with your EMR, what carts are best supported and how the telemedicine provider will empower your implementation and onboarding to optimize the success of your telemedicine program.

Telemedicine benefits

While the challenges above need addressing before considering a telemedicine program, the benefits of having a telemedicine program could arguably far outweigh them. The wonderful thing about telemedicine, and the reason why it’s truly the great equalizer in healthcare, is the fact that it can really drive improvement across different hospital dimensions. It can truly enable multiple benefits for a health system or physician practice by lowering the cost of care. This is key to the survival of healthcare facilities across the nation.

While the highest-ranked benefits include lowered care delivery costs and improved clinician retention, these aren’t the only benefits hospitals and physicians see with telemedicine. Research shows telemedicine programs also improve clinical retention, increase patient retention, reduce patient transfers, increase clinical work/life balance, enhance revenue retention, increase Leapfrog scores, raise HCAHPS scores, increase hospital revenue, and strengthen hospital resilience.

Again, which of these benefits is most important depends on the region of the country. The Northwest, Midwest and Northeast ranked improving clinical retention highest. The Southwest ranked enhanced specialty services as their most valued benefit. And the Southeast ranked improved access to care as the highest benefit.

Every hospital and health system is distinct with different needs, challenges and benefits specific to the size and geographical area it serves. However, research is showing that telemedicine programs are diverse enough to deliver impressive acceptance and increasing adoption. With this, it enables a new healthcare equalizer which will improve access to care and reduce the hospital strain in the face of today’s mounting physician shortage.

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