Telemedicine: More Flexible Legislation Coming Soon in the US?

By November 13, 2014

The bulk of all investment in the e-Health sector has been channelled into Big Data recently. However, the auspices seem good for the rise of telemedicine over the next few years.

Initially designed to provide rural populations with access to high quality medical care, telemedicine is now beginning to live up to its wider promise. A number of startups in this field have been successfully raising capital during 2014 and a reported €172 million was invested in this segment during the first nine months of the year.

One example is San Francisco-based startup Spruce Health, which recently raised $2 million to develop a new smartphone app specialising in acne treatment.  The app enables you to send a photo, together with your medical details, for a remote consultation with a qualified dermatologist on this widespread skin complaint.  For a $40 fee, most of which goes to the specialist, Spruce Health promises that your condition will be reviewed and a personalised treatment plan sent back to your phone within 24 hours.  

Dublin, Ireland-based consultancy Research and Markets is forecasting that the global telemedicine market, already valued at $14.2 billion in 2012, will see a compound annual growth rate of 18.5% until 2018.  Similarly, the Berlin-based research2guidance consultancy, which specialises in the mobile apps market, reckons that the annual global market for telemedicine-oriented m-Health apps services will be worth $26 billion in 2017.  So all indications are that the telemedicine market is about to take off. 


However, while in the United States there is clear and increasing support for telemedicine from both patients and practitioners, with users generally expressing great satisfaction with the access to and speed of the services they have tried, the political and legislative breakthrough in terms of insurance and reimbursement has yet to be made. The US Alliance for Connected Care is a lobbying organisation whose purpose is to work with Congress to create a statutory and regulatory environment in which healthcare providers in the United States have the right to deliver and be adequately compensated under the national health system for ‘Connected Care’ services. Its Executive Director, Krista Drobac, underlines that the recent boom in mobile telephony, plus the fact that most apps are downloadable free of charge, has had a considerable impact on the demand for telemedicine services in the USA.  The inexorable march of mobile technology means that this kind of approach is now considered perfectly normal for all kinds of services, she points out, pledging to push hard for political progress on this front in 2015.  

As the need to reduce the cost of medical cover has become a major issue in the United States, telemedicine would seem an ideal route to explore. This approach was, unsurprisingly, slow to catch on at a time when the robust broadband infrastructure needed to manage the traffic and host the services was not widely available. However, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 70% of all adult US residents had a high-speed broadband connection at home in 2013.

Krista Dobrac stresses nevertheless that willing collaboration between legislators and the companies developing e-health solutions is now essential. The main thrust of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as ‘Obamacare’, is to make medical care affordable for everyone in the country, ensuring that all US citizens, many of whom have difficulty in paying for health care – which is relatively expensive in the United States – can obtain suitable medical insurance cover.  Telemedicine is part of the general trend towards efficient, streamlined medical care and once the regulatory issues are ironed out, it may well open the door to better access to healthcare across the United States.

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