In the mid-twentieth century, millions of viewers—some quite fanatical—tuned into daytime TV soap operas like General Hospital and The Doctors, inviting (albeit highly fictionalized) doctors, nurses, and patients into their homes for an hour of drama. Primetime heartthrobs like Dr. Kildare—yes, pretty much all TV doctors were men back then—charmed their way into our living rooms, too. But nowadays, it’s not just handsome actors who are appearing on our screens. Telemedicine has become a major force in healthcare. More patients every day are choosing that channel. And virtual doctor visits are giving traditional treatment a run for its money.
Telemedicine Spikes in the COVID-19 Era
Today, more than half of all US hospitals have implemented some form of a telehealth program. A 2020 survey reported that, in total, more than 90% of hospitals either had telehealth services in place or had near-term plans to join the ranks of virtual providers.
Prior to the onset of the coronavirus crisis, only 11% of Americans had accessed telemedicine. That number surged to 46% post-pandemic. As a nation, we’re growing more comfortable with telehealthcare and 76% of Americans have expressed interest in receiving virtual care. The telehealth industry is worth more than a quarter trillion dollars. Telehealth websites have proliferated and continue to attract venture capitalist funding.
Med Schools Respond
What does all that mean for you as an aspiring doctor or med student? The American Medical Association is standing behind telemedicine training as a core element of the med school curriculum. A survey conducted by the AMA revealed that more than a quarter of MD-granting institutions have already made telehealth training a part of their preclinical program of study and nearly half include it in the residency phase of medical education. So you can expect to learn how to conduct—and not conduct—virtual visits with your patients.
New privacy protection measures are evolving in the field as telehealth providers, like every other online industry sector, grapple with the scourge of cyberattacks and their associated data breaches. Patients’ use of unsecured digital networks to meet with medical providers and transmit health information may also increase privacy risk. There is some concern that the virtual healthcare model may increase medical malpractice, but there’s no concrete evidence that it has. Telemedicine is widely accepted as safe and effective and its benefit to the population writ large is undeniable.
The Positive Impact of Telemedicine
The availability of virtual healthcare grants greater access to vital services for traditionally underserved patients, including African Americans, the Latinx community, rural dwellers, and those with limited mobility. For uninsured patients, telehealth is an affordable alternative to in-person care. Individuals with chronic diseases, from diabetes to hypertension to asthma, benefit from remote patient management (RPM). The CDC has recommended telehealth as an intervention that mitigates risk factors and improves chronic disease management. The practice of telemedicine helps curb unnecessary emergency room visits and otherwise reins in healthcare costs—goal providers, health insurers, and patients share. According to a study by the Veterans Health Administration, hospital readmissions overall also decreased with the implementation of telehealth services by more than 40%. Readmissions for heart failure fell by more than 50%.
And needless to say, in the age of COVID-19, virtual healthcare limits the risk of virus transmission associated with facility-based care. Health insurers’ initial reluctance to cover telehealth visits is fading and insurance industry advocacy groups are calling for an end to telehealth coverage restrictions, which had been largely lifted to meet the coronavirus crisis.
What’s In it for You?
The short answer is time and money. Teledocs enjoy the freedom of more flexible hours. As a network provider for an established telehealth platform, you can largely set your own schedule. Balancing work life and home life is easier when you have that level of autonomy. Of course, you’re practicing at home, it’s incumbent upon you to be disciplined and set boundaries that allow you to treat patients without interruption and distractions. Good telehealth habits take time to acquire, but that’s true when taking on any kind of remote office work. Establishing an effective routine is entirely doable. Employees from all walks of life are proving it every day. You might be surprised to learn that both employees and employers are reporting an increase in productivity since working from home became a COVID-19 imperative.
Practicing remotely may have financial benefits, as well. Some docs moonlight in the virtual world. If you’re saddled with student loan debt or you need to repair your credit, the extra income you earn through a telemedicine side hustle can help you catch up with payments and get out of debt more quickly.
How Much Can You Earn Practicing Telemedicine?
Your income potential as a telehealth provider depends on several factors. Location is one: just like in the physical world, teledocs in large cities command higher prices. Your area of specialty makes a difference, too. Cardiologists and radiologists tend to earn top dollar in the virtual world, averaging over $450,000 per year. Family medicine practitioners and pediatricians typically earn around half that per year practicing online. Again, the virtual medicine world mirrors the traditional on that account.
But all doctors gain one financial advantage when practicing remotely. They’re paid by the hour—or more accurately in 15-minute increments. If you’re affiliated with a telehealth platform, the more time you spend with a patient the more money you earn. That’s not the case in physical practices, where one extended patient visit reduces a doctor’s hourly earnings. Some doctors are attracted to the financial predictability a telehealth practice affords them. In addition, telemedicine allows doctors to scale their practices on their own timetable. You may want to take on fewer patients when you’re raising toddlers and more when they reach school age. Many healthcare facilities don’t grant that kind of flexibility to their staff.
What’s the Catch?
We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the telehealth revolution may not be all sunshine and roses. The last time healthcare underwent a digital transformation —with the advent of electronic health record-keeping (EHR)—many physicians were overwhelmed by the administrative burdens EHR placed on them. EHR was frequently cited as a primary factor in physician burnout. Unless you manage your tele-practice carefully, you, too, could wind up exhausted. You might also end up bored. The vast majority of telehealth visits relate to common symptoms and illnesses like the flu. Tele-treatment is never indicated in an emergency, of course, and many serious health symptoms also require an in-person visit. So you might get stuck treating the sniffles and skinned knees day in and day out.
In addition, physicians in private practice typically make a significant investment, in terms of technology and time, to make virtual healthcare work for them, their staff, and their patients. That’s one factor driving doctors to become affiliated with a successful telehealth platform, rather than striking out on their own. Large telemedicine companies provide practitioners with malpractice insurance, too, so the out-of-pocket costs of joining one are negligible.
Ready or Not…
Telemedicine has arrived and, by almost unanimous prediction, it’s here to stay. If you’re still considering which med school to attend, you may want to pay attention to how well each institution prepares you to practice in the virtual world. And if you’re already in school, it’s a good idea to soak up all the telemedicine training you can get before you graduate. The benefits of participating in telemedicine are real for both physicians and the patients they dedicate themselves to serving.