Telemedicine growing fastest in primary care

Reimbursement, new apps push adoption of virtual visits
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About 15 million people will receive healthcare via telemedicine this year, according to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). Although most of these virtual visits will take place between patients and specialists, the nonprofit ATA expects 450,000 of them to be for primary care.

"I would say without a doubt [primary care is] the fastest area of growth in telemedicine," ATA CEO Jon Linkous told the Associated Press. "There's this convenience factor that makes it so compelling to consumers."

In addition to these factors, insurers and retailers help drive the remote-health trend. For example, the nation's largest drugstore chain, Walgreens, announced this month that it will offer a smartphone application that links doctor and patients virtually in 25 states by the end of the year. And at the close of next year, two major insurers--UnitedHealth Group and the Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem--expect to roll out their own non-emergency telemedicine services to about 40 million people as well, according to the article.

Robert Wergin, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told the AP that he expects to do more telemedicine visits in the future as more insurers begin to cover it. The benefits are especially pronounced in rural areas such as his with high populations of senior patients who have difficulty traveling to appointments.

Wergin offered a caveat, noting that physical exams are sometimes necessary to make a correct diagnosis. Because of this limitation and others, telemedicine providers are trained to quickly identify patients who need a higher level of care, Walgreens Chief Medical Officer Harry Leider, M.D., told the AP.

Regulations surrounding telemedicine vary by state. Some states, such as Texas, require a doctor to have an established relationship with a patient, which might include an in-person exam, before allowing them to conduct a telemedicine visit.

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