Featured Article from Conferencing

Doctors in Kentucky to Rely More on Telemedicine

August 13, 2013

Any area with a doctor shortage has more than its share of difficulty serving patients. When 600,000 new patients are added to that total, the problem is more severe and requires a quick response.

This scenario describes the scene in Kentucky, where expanded Medicaid coverage and the opening of health insurance exchanges are expected to strain a healthcare system that already could not keep up with patient demand.

Rural counties are hit the hardest by the doctor shortage, according to a state commissioned report compiled by Deloitte Consulting. The state needs nearly 3,800 doctors to meet existing demand. More than three out of five of that total number (about 2,300 doctors) comes from rural counties.

In response to this problem, many doctors in the Commonwealth have turned to telemedicine to treat patients. In 2011, there were 6,200 video conference visits with doctors and more than 3,000 EKGs transmitted in Kentucky.

The popularity of telemedicine should continue to grow in Kentucky. New laws mandate that private carriers and Medicaid cover the technology.

The state’s Department of Corrections also uses telehealth for treating inmates. This saves considerable money since taking inmates outside a prison for treatment presents a danger to the public, requires guard labor, consumes fuel and puts wear and tear on state vehicles. The National Institute of Justice found that using telemedicine in a correctional facility environment saved $142 per encounter.

The popularity of the trend is pretty strong outside of Kentucky too. According to the American Telehealth Association, about 10 million Americans benefited from telemedicine in 2012, double the total from 2009. Ten percent of ICU beds in the U.S. use telemedicine and over five million U.S. patients had medical images read remotely in 2012.

One Louisville-based pediatrician who has used telemedicine since 2004 had concerns when first using the technology.

Dr. Thomas Badgett noticed a large number skin disorders among children living in the area. One of his biggest concerns was that he would not be able to get a good look at lesions using the available video equipment and could not examine them in person.

The combination of staff in the remote locations and the patients emailing photos of lesions alleviated this concern. According to Badgett, only five out of 500 telemedicine patients have required follow-ups in person.

There are some concerns about the technology with telemedicine. Just as the rural areas are underserved when it comes to specialists, they are often equally underserved when it comes to reliable broadband service. Doctors have no control over the patient environment, a problem especially with easily distracted children. Security and privacy are also common concerns.

Nonetheless, the proverbial floodgates have opened when it comes to telemedicine in Kentucky and it isn’t going to go away soon. It’s not going to work for some non-routine treatments, but for many treatments, it is a great option for a family living 150 miles away from a population center like Louisville with gasoline approaching $4 per gallon.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey