Telehealth and Family Physicians: Insights From New Study

The looming shortage of primary care providers has long been a cause for concern in the health care industry. A 2016 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) study, for example, projected a shortage of as many as 94,700 physicians of all specialties by 2025—including as many as 35,600 primary care physicians. One way to alleviate this shortage, of course, is through telehealth. But how many primary care providers are currently taking advantage of these technologies? According to a new study of telehealth usage among family physicians (as first reported by mHealth Intelligence) published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (JABFM), while overall utilization is still relatively low, rural providers have increasingly been bringing telehealth into their practices.

The study’s authors surveyed a representative sample of family physicians, asking whether they had used telehealth in the past year, among other questions. Respondents practicing in rural communities were three times more likely than their counterparts in urban settings to have recently utilized telehealth technologies, as were providers who worked in larger practices that were part of a hospital or health system. In terms of how they utilized it in their practice, more than half (55 percent) of respondents said that they had used telehealth for diagnostic purposes, with chronic disease management and follow-up visits also on the list of common reasons for use. Finally, and notably, very few respondents who reported having used telehealth in the past year had done so frequently, with nearly half saying they had used it between one and five times.

Of course, as anyone who follows the telehealth industry knows, there are still barriers to more widespread utilization. Among the family physicians surveyed, the (familiar) central challenges tended to lie in lack of training, cost, and limited reimbursement—particularly with those providers who were not part of integrated health systems. However, the study’s authors are optimistic that these difficulties can be overcome through regulatory and policy changes. “To address issues of reimbursement, governmental and private payers could engage in outreach efforts to increase awareness of their current allowed payments for telehealth and either expand the types of telehealth services currently eligible for payment or develop new ways to reimburse telehealth services,” they suggest. In terms of improving provider training, “One suggestion…is for family medicine residency programs to ensure that graduating residents are offered opportunities to use telehealth services.” Taken together, the authors believe that these changes could allow telehealth to further take hold among primary care providers and their patients.

Click here for the article from mHealth Intelligence on the study of telehealth use among family physicians.

Click here for the JABFM study on family physicians and telehealth.

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