Telemedicine’s Stumbling Blocks

The telemedicine industry, led by companies just as Teladoc, MDLive and American Well, is growing by any definition. Worldwide, telemedicine is expected to be a $35 billion business by the year 2020, according to Zion Research. The company uses the broadest definition of telemedicine – just about any form of electronic exchange of medical information.

A narrower definition – a patient consulting with a doctor on a non-emergency medical matter – is, I think, the most interesting form of telemedicine and one that will have the most impact on the delivery of care.

But what are the stumbling blocks that are keeping telemedicine from reaching its fullest potential and how can those blocks be overcome?

A look at news coverage of telemedicine around the country shows that state regulations are a big barrier to expanding telemedicine. For example, regulations developed decades ago, and probably with good reason at the time, prevent a physician not licensed in a state to treat a patient in that state or require that the patient must be examined by a physician in person.

Those kinds of regulations move the argument of whether telemedicine is an effective form of healthcare delivery from the market place to the legislature. Therein, lies the rub.

Now it’s political influence that’s required to help expand the impact of telemedicine. Both sides can argue all they want about the benefits and drawbacks of telemedicine. But arguments at the political level are not always about who or what is right. It’s who has the most influence.

Doctors, whom these regulations are designed for the most part to protect, are a potent political force in any argument over medical care. After all, they’re doctors. They’re perhaps the most well-educated and trusted professionals that we encounter. And we all encounter them.

How do you overcome the influence of doctors to advance the cause of telemedicine? Who do legislators listen to? 

Medical organizations certainly have potent lobbying arms. But a well-organized grassroots effort with a well-defined mission and articulate spokesperson can wage a media campaign that gets a legislator’s attention better than a lobbyist.