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The End of the Virtualist: Making the Case Against Telemedicine as a Specialty

The End of the Virtualist: Making the Case Against Telemedicine as a Specialty

“In five to 10 years, we’re not going to talk about telehealth, it’s just going to be health,” said John Kornak, director of telehealth at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. (Medscape March 2, 2016)

While telemedicine isn’t a new healthcare IT offering, having existed for over a decade in one form or another, the concept of virtual care has continued to evolve from a novel “nice to have” to an important part of the comprehensive care delivery system. As even newer applications are piloted and integrated into advanced models of care, the industry as a whole is in agreement that virtual care has yielded significant advantages in the form of decreased costs, enhanced patient safety and greater efficiencies across the clinical workflow.

Like fax, email, the internet and other new health IT innovations like the EHR before it, telemedicine solutions represent a powerful tool to extend and enhance physician to patient interaction and care team collaboration. The healthcare ecosystem will adapt and adopt over time and telemedicine interactions will eventually become a core component to driving better patient outcomes.  Virtual care technology will not ever replace in-person care; rather, it will allow physicians to have access to more care opportunities and be able to select one or a combination (remote specialist, in-person internist) of options that is most appropriate for a specific patient’s needs at a particular moment.  There is no validity in vendors’ calls for specialized physicians to practice telemedicine, since telemedicine can be used by all physicians to effectively extend and make more accessible many existing evaluation and examination protocols in a more efficient manner.

People disagree on this point. Some players in the telemedicine sector are quite vocal in their belief that remote care should in and of itself be a medical specialty — even going so far as using the term “virtualist” to describe the offering.  This is ludicrous. A law office, for example, does not have an “emailist” or “video conference-ist” on staff. Rather, the ability to communicate with today’s modern tools is a competency that workers have all gained and integrated into their primary job functions over the years. Similarly, with telemedicine every doctor should and will be looking to technology to seamlessly augment their current roles as physicians, ultimately leading to more efficient and effective patient interactions.

Telemedicine has come a long way since it was first introduced to the market, and in 2016 it will continue to change the healthcare delivery model, meeting the demands of a new generation of patients for remote counsel and care and of physicians who are eager to reap the benefits of a virtual care offering. Today, the industry continues to find new and exciting outcomes producing methods of integrating the technology to better engage patients and maximize efficiency and care.  What’s important to remember is that telemedicine is an enabling technology – a tool — and not an end in itself.