Ever since the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) was passed in 1986, anyone who visits the ER must be seen by a physician, regardless of their condition. By 2015, the American Medical Association would find that 40 to 55% of emergency room visits could be resolved by a mere phone call with a physician. Today, efficiency continues to be one of the pillars of the telehealth industry.
Before 1986, someone with a sore throat might visit the ER, only to face a triage officer whose job was to screen individuals before entering. That person was your interface; recommending you see your family doctor and helping you make an appointment, even giving referrals if needed. Emergency room physicians and nurses would be able to focus on their actual job and treat emergencies but there was one problem. People were being turned away because they could not pay. EMTALA was passed so that visitors would at least be ensured a screening from a doctor, regardless of whether they can pay or not.
Now, everyone knows that if the doctor’s office is closed, the ER is always open and won’t turn anyone away. There have been consequences. Forget about the fact that authentic emergencies have had to share space with sore throats, waiting to be prioritized. Someone has to pay for the non-emergencies. A simple phone call with an emergency physician could save a whole lot of time and money. This is where telemedicine comes in. Emergency physicians in a for-profit hospital could certainly generate revenue by seeing these people but it impedes far too much on their time, not to mention the time needed for actual emergencies.
Did we mention how expensive ER visits can be? From this standpoint alone, a three to four minute consultation by phone is far more cost effective than a six hour emergency room visit. Those hours add up, as do those dollars. Individuals cannot afford the costs and neither can their employers. Avoiding emergency room claims is reason enough for an employer to add telemedicine to its benefits plan.
Thirty years ago, a phone call was all it took to avoid an unnecessary ER visit. All that has changed since then is the technology. That may be an understatement but telemedicine continues to save time and money by shrinking distances and improving access.