Throughout the healthcare industry there are reports of telemedicine making access to quality care more easily available to larger populations. For example, family doctors are reaching rural areas more easily than ever before. So why isn’t telemedicine catching on with physical and occupational therapists? Because Medicaid has really not caught up with it yet.
The average occupational or physical therapist still relies almost exclusively on face-to-face meetings with patients. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But where patients and therapists could benefit from telemedicine, the option is just not there. According to a September (2018) article by mHealth Intelligence, a lack of Medicaid guidelines makes it nearly impossible for therapists to launch telemedicine platforms.
Telemedicine in Just Seven States
mHealth Intelligence contributor Eric Wicklund reports that there are just seven states with Medicaid guidelines in place governing how physical and occupational therapists can use telemedicine. Unfortunately, the problem is not exclusive to therapy. Telemedicine isn’t nearly as prolific as it should be because federal regulations and state Medicaid guidelines don’t match.
Although Medicaid is a federal program, it is administered by the states. The states have great latitude in deciding how they will run their programs. Some states are currently working on Medicaid guidelines for telemedicine in occupational physical therapy, but most are not. The resulting patchwork means that therapists are not even investigating the possibilities of telemedicine.
The good news for therapists, if we can really call it that, is that things are worse in some other specialties. For example, Wicklund says that ophthalmologists are having an even harder time. Ophthalmologists in some states cannot even agree with regulators over using telemedicine for something as simple as an eye exam.
Not Enough to Go Around
The fact of the matter is that our healthcare system simply does not have enough personnel to go around. We hear all the time about the shortage of GPs and family practice doctors, but every specialty is lacking. That includes both occupational and physical therapy. Telemedicine is a technology that promises to go a long way toward alleviating the shortfall.
Wicklund went on in his piece to report some striking numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS numbers show that there were about 130,400 employed occupational therapists in 2016. They are employed by hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes, rehab clinics, schools, etc.
That may seem like a considerable number, but it is still not enough to meet demand. Addressing the shortage requires a two-pronged approach that includes both recruiting more young people into occupational and physical therapy and finding more efficient ways to treat more patients. Telemedicine is part of the second prong.
Medicine Needs More Efficiency
Telemedicine offers a lot of promise to occupational and physical therapy if for no other reason than the fact that it increases efficiency. Of course, the human factor should never be replaced by machines in the medical industry. Yet inefficiency should not be allowed to continue just because the industry has always done things a certain way.
The increased efficiency telemedicine affords would allow therapists to distinguish between patients who absolutely need an office visit and others who could be seen at home via real-time audio and video. Where patients can be treated via telemedicine, offices spend less time on things that otherwise slow them down. This means more patients seen in the same time.
As a side note, telemedicine would make it easier for locum tenens therapists to do what they do. Locum agencies could help their clients make more efficient use of their locum contracts as well. It would be a win-win for patients, therapists, and employers alike.