Telehealth offers promise for expanding healthcare reach at lower cost

Rite Aid, Walgreens, Thrifty White are among pharmacy retailers jumping into rapidly growing field

The Department of Health and Human Services is setting aside $5.3 million to expand health information technology — particularly telehealth — in rural areas in order to improve mental health services for veterans.

Telehealth represents one of the best ways to expand healthcare services to underserved areas while also lowering costs by expanding the area a health professional can cover from a single location.

It's growing rapidly: According to research firm IHS, 1.8 million patients worldwide will access health and wellness care through electronic and video links by 2017, marking a sixfold expansion over the next five years. Meanwhile, Towers Watson released a report predicting that more than a quarter of employers in the United States would offer telehealth options by the middle of this year.

The rise in telehealth is being driven by improving technologies and the growth of electronic health records, the MIT Technology Review noted in June, as well as the growth of mobile health apps and other technologies; a desire by payers to reduce costs, a shortage of primary care physicians are also behind the expansion.

Pharmacy retailers are getting into it as well. In about 70 of its stores, all in Detroit and the Northeast, Rite Aid offers NowClinic, which allows patients to have virtual appointments with doctors through a secure webcam connection and even receive prescriptions. A more recent addition to the program allows Wellness Ambassadors to use their iPads to connect customers who have questions about health products to clinical pharmacists working out of a call center in Pittsburgh via a live video chat session.

Walgreens' Take Care Health Systems is also collaborating with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and telehealth services provider American Well to provide remote-site health services. Through a pilot program, dubbed OnlineCareNC, BCBSNC employees receive telehealth consultations with Take Care nurse practitioners, health coaches or nutritionists through video, secure text chat or over the phone.

Last month, at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores' Total Store Expo in Las Vegas, a panel that included executives from ScriptPro, Mscripts, Thrifty White Pharmacy and Rite Aid discussed telepharmacy, particularly ScriptPro's telehealth products, Thrifty White's efforts to bring telepharmacy services to underserved areas of North Dakota and the growing use of mobile technology in health care.

 

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