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Telehealth Is More Disruptive Than We May Think

News  |  By Jim Molpus  
   November 01, 2017

Clayton Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation two decades ago as a way of embracing the deconstruction that is necessary when a new technology displaces an old one.

Ever since then, it seems healthcare has been waiting for a series of disruptions to alter the course of the industry.

If there is a technology that could put healthcare in a blender for the next decade, it's the increasing scope of telehealth and its close relative, telemedicine.

In this month's cover story, senior editor Philip Betbeze looks at "The Adolescence of Telehealth," an apt analogy to describe the critical juncture that telehealth is in.

Telehealth and telemedicine, after all, are using people and technology to alter two fundamental pieces of healthcare: distribution and labor.

Telehealth fundamentally shifts the distribution of a good portion of healthcare clinical and nonclinical services outside of the traditional brick-and-mortar structures that have been used by American healthcare for decades: the hospital and the physician office.

Telehealth visits were a novelty not too long ago, and now have caught the consumer mainstream.

A 2017 study by American Well found that 50 million Americans would be willing to switch primary care providers if it meant getting access to video visits, up from 17 million in 2015.

It's safe to predict that consumer habits will continue to chase convenience and cost, especially in quick care areas of minor aches and ailments.

What healthcare is just starting to appreciate are the seismic shifts that could come to the physician and provider labor market as telehealth moves outside the few areas where it began.

Of course, there will always be the need for hands-on medicine.

But anywhere the patient-to-provider interaction is consultative in nature, there will be someone looking to connect them via technology.

In a future where telehealth is more the norm, a midlevel provider may be the primary link across the screen, with the primary care provider being the expert sorting through data.

In a regional system with networked telehealth, one specialist in an area such as infectious diseases could cover many hospitals.

In critical care, where telemedicine has been rooted for decades, the discipline itself has become a blend of hands-on care and analyzing remote data.

The path is not all clear, however.

Reimbursements of telehealth visits remain a primary barrier to use, as do technology costs, credentialing, and other regulatory hurdles.

These barriers seem to be shrinking every year. Disruptive technology, after all, is about pressure.

In this case, consumers, employers, a growing telehealth industry, and even providers are pushing the industry upward. It's only a matter of time before telehealth grows up.

Jim Molpus is the director of the HealthLeaders Exchange.

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