Telehealth has been an emerging focus in the health care sector for some time. Huge numbers of doctors and other health care professionals strongly support telehealth, arguing that these approaches hold the potential to improve health care efficiency, effectiveness and outreach. 

Today, there's a growing amount of evidence to suggest that telehealth's time has finally arrived. As this trend picks up steam, care providers across the country will need to take steps to ensure both their patients and themselves are in position to benefit fully from telehealth solutions.

"The on-demand health care market is on pace to reach $1 billion by 2017."

A Growing Industry
Arguably the best evidence of telehealth's growing impact can be found in a recent report from Accenture on the size of the telehealth market. According to this study, the on-demand health care market – a field which is largely interchangeable with telehealth – is on pace to reach $1 billion by 2017, up from about $250 million today. What's more, annual investments in on-demand health service companies increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 224 percent between 2010 and 2014. 

"On-demand healthcare is fundamentally changing – and enriching – the doctor-patient relationship, making the physician much more accessible to patients while simultaneously reducing costs," said Kaveh Safavi, Senior Managing Director for Accenture's global health business.

Safavi went on to explain that telehealth efforts are on pace to dramatically change the nature of the health care model as it exists today.

"Investment in on-demand healthcare and collaboration between industries will ultimately precipitate a shift away from a goods and services model to a 'life care' model, providing patients with personalized services that addresses a multitude of daily needs," he asserted.

Federal Action
Further reflecting on the growing importance of telehealth, the federal government has recently enacted or is considering implementing a number of measures to make telehealth more readily accessible to patients. 

Notably, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently released a final rule requiring Medicaid patients to meet face-to-face with their health care provider prior to any home health services. As Politico reported, though, the rule now considers telehealth to qualify as "face-to-face" – a major step forward toward accepting telehealth as a major component of the broader health care landscape. 

Critically, phone calls and emails are not considered "face-to-face" for these purposes. This further emphasizes the increasingly important role that advanced telehealth solutions can and almost certainly will play in the Medicaid program at large – a program which now has nearly 70 million enrollees, according to Statista.

"Our expectation is that care delivered using various technologies will lead to good outcomes and meet the needs of the individual while adhering to privacy requirements, including the requirements under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996," CMS explained in its ruling. "We recognize the need for updated Medicaid telehealth guidance, which will be forthcoming. In the meantime, we are available to provide technical assistance."

Telehealth is becoming more widely accepted for federal programs.Telehealth is becoming more widely accepted for federal programs.

This is a step in the right direction, but many believe the federal government should act now to further encourage telehealth use. Recently, the American Hospital Association (AHA), the American College of Physicians (ACP) and National Coalition on Health Care joined other health care organizations in sending comments to the Senate Finance Committee advocating new guidelines for making telehealth easier to implement, mHealth Intelligence reported. 

For example, the AHA specifically focused on the potential benefits of telehealth for Medicare patients.

"Comprehensive changes to the telehealth statute – such as eliminating the geographic location and practice setting 'originating site' requirements and removing restrictions on covered services and technologies (including store-and-forward technology and remote patient monitoring) – are needed to realize fully the promise of telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries," the group wrote in its letter to the Senate Finance Committee.

State-level Activity
While the federal government continues to consider steps to standardize telehealth, a number of states are taking more concrete action in this area.

In a separate mHealth Intelligence report, Eric Wicklund noted that a two-year-old telehealth-based diabetes program in Mississippi has proven so successful that it will soon be adopted by other states. The program, launched in 2014 by the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Center (UMMC) for Telehealth, delivered a wide range of positive outcomes. The initial six-month pilot program involving 100 residents resulted in $400,000 in savings, zero emergency room visits and a 1.7 percent decrease among A1C levels. In light of these outcomes, a number of other states in the Southeast are now poised to follow suit, with the goal of working with 1,000 patients per month by the year's end.

"We want the success of this program to impact as many lives as possible," said Michael Adcock, Administrator of UMMC's Center of Telehealth, the source reported.

All of these developments suggest that telehealth is on track to become a major component of the health care landscape in the years to come.