The expanding number of doctors offering appointments through videoconferencing, called telemedicine, is expected to see a sharp increase in Kentucky.
Telemedicine is seen as a way to help deal with doctor shortages, especially in rural areas and especially with another 600,000 people in the state who are expected to join insurance rolls in health exchanges and or through expanded Medicaid coverage, according to a report by The Courier-Journal.
“I see the future of medicine as a progressive use of technology,” said Dr. Greg Jicha, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. “Riding the wave of telemedicine is really going to increase access to care.”
A recent report from the Kentucky Telehealth Network says there were almost 6,200 video-conference doctor visits in 2011.
Officials said the state has more than 200 telehealth sites now, compared with four rural hospitals in 1994.
That number is expected to grow quickly as more insurance companies allow telehealth services, officials say.
Jicha, who has seen hundreds of patients remotely, said some seem “a little freer to talk about things” during videoconferencing.
Proponents of telemedicine’s expansion say it allows people more access to doctors, especially ones not available locally.
For example, Dr. Thomas Badgett, a pediatrician with U of L Physicians-Pediatrics in Louisville, recently treated 5-year-old Jewel Harmon who never left Morehead, which is about 150 miles northeast.
The girl’s mother, Jessica Noble, said the videoconference was “wonderful.”
“It’s hard for me to get around. And I can’t drive all the way to Louisville; I don’t have reliable transportation to drive that far,” she said.
Beckett said he had “a lot of reservations” at first like whether he would be able to do thorough exams. Between high-resolution digital photos that are sent to him and health workers at remote sites who could touch patients’ skin, he says it has worked out well. So far, only five of about 500 telemedicine patients have had to see him in-person.
Several Heath care systems in Kentucky have recently announced plans to increase telehealth offerings.
However, the technology does have flaws compared to traditional doctor visits — physicians can’t touch patients and some areas don’t have good Internet signal.
Tim Bickel, telehealth director for the University of Louisville and an employee of U of L Physicians, said the technology is meant to help out, not take over, health care.
“Telemedicine is not ever going to replace all healthcare visits,” he said.