Telehealth not always cheaper but worth it

Delivering healthcare services online can cut costs for patients, but not necessarily for providers, according to a new study.

University of Queensland researcher Centaine Snoswell and colleagues reviewed telehealth to determine whether the introduction of video appointments and remote patient monitoring reduced the financial burden on the healthcare system.

She said while the team found while an overall reduction in costs could not be guaranteed for telehealth services, there are a number of benefits for patients and health professionals.

“Telehealth means avoided travel expenses and travel time, as well as allowing patients to take less time off work,” Dr Snoswell said.

“Expensive procedures or specialist follow-ups can sometimes be avoided, and telehealth can increase a doctor’s productivity when their travel time is replaced with time working on patient cases.

“Other benefits include patients’ increased access to care, and an opportunity for providers to develop culturally appropriate services that are sensitive to the needs of special populations.”

However Dr Snoswell said added administration and equipment maintenance costs for telehealth consultations largely negated any cost savings for health providers.

“About half the economic studies we reviewed showed telehealth did not reduce health system costs in the short-to-medium term, or within three years.”

The study identified four possible cost-saving areas associated with telehealth: higher productivity, less hospital use, access to other funding models such as when a consumer pays, and savings due to upskilling staff.

Dr Snoswell said health professionals considering adopting telehealth needed to take into account more than just finance.

“Telehealth offers Australia the opportunity to harness the power of technology to revolutionise healthcare delivery,” she said.

“Decision-makers need to consider the effects on patients and be motivated by more than just cost-reduction when they consider adding digital health services.”

This project was led by UQ Associate Professor Liam Caffery, and other researchers included Dr Snoswell, Monica Taylor, Professor Tracy Comans, Professor Anthony Smith and Professor Len Gray .

The paper was published in the journal JMIR (doi:10.2196/17298)

The work was funded by the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability.

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