The future of health care in the U.S. is far from settled, but how people receive it now is also undergoing a revolution. Health records are antiquated, there’s a shortage of primary care physicians and access to birth control and emergency contraception is limited in some places.
Health and technology companies operating largely outside of the standard health care system are attempting to solve these and other problems with alternative approaches. Whether they have staying power remains to be seen, but here are four compelling methods on the rise.
Video chatting your doctor
It can take more than three weeks to get an appointment with a new doctor, but now, people in all 50 states can visit a physician through their smartphone. “Telemedicine has been touted as the next big thing for several years, and I think it’s finally getting to a stage where adoption is kicking in,” says Hill Ferguson, CEO of Doctor On Demand, an online video chat app. The app provides a platform for more than 1,000 doctors and more than one million users, Ferguson says.
Whether that means obtaining a prescription from your couch or chatting with a therapist for 10 minutes at the office, video chat visits are becoming increasingly common: By 2020 there could be an estimated 45.6 million virtual consultations performed in the U.S., according to data and analysis company IHS Markit. Ad option of telemedicine in health care has increased from about 54% in 2014 to 71% in 2017, and the use of telemedicine in health care increased 9% from last year, according to April 2017 research from HIMSS Analytics, a global healthcare IT market research group.
Telemedicine is also becoming a greater part of health care treatment in rural areas, and more hospitals are embracing video consultations. A May 2017 study found that from 2004 to 2014, use of telemedicine for mental health visits among rural Americans on Medicare increased an average of 45% per year. Virtual medicine is becoming more specialized, too; Maven, a digital clinic catering to women that launched in 2015, offers lactation specialists and midwives, for example.
There are some downsides to telemedicine. Rather than seeing a consistent doctor or team of health care providers, telemedicine apps connect people with physicians that happen to be available, though some allow users to chat with specific doctors they like. Some research suggests that virtual visits may not necessarily reduce health care spending, since more people may obtain care for minor illnesses they wouldn’t have otherwise, and some doctors argue that reimbursement in some states isn’t enough to invest in the technology. But while it may never fully replace in-person appointments, telemedicine could help cut down on unnecessary and costly trips to the emergency room, especially now that more insurance companies are covering digital appointments. Medicaid offers some level of reimbursement in 48 states including D.C., and most private insurers do as well.
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