Forty-four percent of current physicians plan to reduce their patient load by cutting hours, retiring, or refusing to see new patients. That’s a statistic cited in a recent AP report on increasingly imminent doctor shortages. The article points out that part of the issue is regional: one out of every five Americans lives in an area that is doctor-poor. Telemedicine could ease the burden on those doctors in underserved areas by distributing patients towards areas that have more doctors—but states have been slow to catch on. USA Today reports on the barriers in the way of expanding access to telemedicine:
Nearly 30 states don’t allow reimbursement for video visits, which keeps doctors from practicing telemedicine. There’s no organized opposition to the practice — the American Medical Association endorsed it in June — but state legislatures and medical boards have been slow to change rules and laws to allow it.Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas are the most restrictive when it comes to patients in rural areas being treated by a doctor on video whom they haven’t met in person, according to a study by the American Telemedicine Association, which supports expanding the practice.
Telemedicine not only increases access for people in medically underserved areas, but actually costs less than in-person visits. But USA Today is wrong that there is no organized opposition to the practice: the AMA has endorsed telemedicine, but only with the incredibly burdensome caveat that doctors must get a license in every state in which they treat patients, even telemedicine patients.A certain kind of mind looks at the doctor shortages and sees a structural problem requiring overhaul of the entire U.S. health care system from Washington. But here as in many places, small policy shifts that give care providers more space to use new technologies could reduce the damage of doctor shortages. That no health care reform to date has attempted to allow doctors reimbursement for virtual visits is a sign of how far policy has lagged behind technology, to everyone’s detriment.