Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Telemedicine VS. The Growing Tsunami of Health Care Costs

With 2011 approaching, we find ourselves immersed in many political debates that will determine which direction our country takes for decades to come. With our national deficit at record highs and facing the aftermath of the financial meltdown, one of our most pressing issues is how do we balance cost with good healthcare. Currently there are 53 million Americans without any form of healthcare coverage, a staggering number for the world’s only superpower. However, the debate continues: is healthcare coverage a right of citizenship or a privilege? Outside of this political debate is the undeniable fact that our healthcare costs are spiraling out of control, reaching $2.5 trillion in 2009. This accounts for 17.3 percent of GDP, after rising a record 5.7 percent in the previous year. Where are these dollars going and what is to show for it? Certainly a majority of the spending goes towards the treatment of chronic disease such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like asthma and emphysema), diabetes, and heart failure. The most costly form of treatment is extended hospital stays.

So with our country facing a ballooning healthcare bill, what are the solutions when our aging population is steadily increasing our overall incidence of chronic disease? Combine this likely rise in hospital stays with a growing shortage of physicians and the addition of 32 million Americans to the healthcare system due to healthcare reform and you are faced with a daunting task of balancing budget with providing good healthcare.

Inherent in the answer is providing appropriate treatment with the most cost effective method. Telemedicine is proving to be one such answer: it’s a cheaper way to deliver quality treatment and it can be done without travel instantly through videoconferencing technology. Hospitals like UC Davis in California are adopting telemedicine as a way to extend specialist reach to patients without needing a doctor at every facility. Take a look at this video highlighting an emergency room scenario where a young comatose patient received the appropriate treatment for his diabetic coma through a consultation between his ER doctor and a specialist over a videoconference. Not only was his life saved as a result of the technology but tremendous cost savings were revealed by enabling immediate access to the appropriate care in the ER as well as for follow-up visits with his specialist.

If telemedicine can both save lives and save money then hopefully more hospitals will be following the example of UC Davis in the near future.

~Dr. Kevin Friedman

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