Telemedicine trend gets a boost in Congress

Widespread reliance on telemedicine to electronically deliver health and pharmacy services to hard-to-reach patients in remote locations is getting closer to reality. And in a fast-evolving health care system struggling to improve access to health services at a lower overall cost, that’s a good thing.

The potential breakthrough for remote-site dispensing and health counseling came in the U.S. House of Representatives. California Democrat Mike Thompson is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate barriers to telemedicine services for all federal health programs.

The so-called Telehealth Promotion Act would effectively allow Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Department of Veterans Affairs and federal employee health plans to provide medical benefits to an estimated 75 million beneficiaries where needed, far from any actual pharmacy or clinic. Through those systems, pharmacists and other health providers could dispense prescriptions and real-time counseling or diagnostics to patients in real time, via remote-site kiosks equipped with two-way video communications and other technologies.

Thompson’s bill would also use financial incentives to encourage hospitals to use telemedicine to lower patients’ readmission rates, and allow accountable care organizations to use telemedicine as a substitute for in-person care.

American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous, called the bill “a major step forward in congressional support for telemedicine,” and is urging supporters to work for its passage.

Pharmacy operators like Thrifty White – which serves hundreds of thousands of customers in far-flung locations across a huge swath of the country’s upper Midwest region – have offered remote-site prescription dispensing and telemedicine services for years. It’s allowed those pharmacy providers to reach patients far from a brick-and-mortar store with pharmacy services, using either a kiosk or a pharmacy technician linked in real time via a live monitor to a pharmacist at a “hub” location.

Advances in mobile health applications for computers, remote-site kiosks and smart phones have accelerated the trend, extending the ability of pharmacies and other health providers to reach patients where they live and work.

It remains to be seen how big a role telemedicine will play in the health care system’s campaign to bring services within easier reach of patients in small towns, rural communities and other areas without easy access to a pharmacy, nurse of primary care physician. But the need for such solutions seems clear and compelling, especially in light of the consolidation of retail pharmacy locations, the disappearance of many family-owned small-town drug stores, and the growing national shortage of primary-care doctors.

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