This commentary originally appeared in The McAllen Monitor on March 28, 2016.
Three of the biggest challenges in our healthcare systems are: access, cost and workforce. People can’t get to doctors. People can’t afford health care. And there aren’t enough providers so it takes a long time to get services.
In rural communities in Texas, people travel an average of 31 miles to see a healthcare provider. If you live in a smaller community, you’re likely to travel much farther. Once you get to the doctor, if you’re uninsured you can expect to pay about $50 to $200 per clinic visit and $2,000 at an emergency room.
If you live in the Rio Grande Valley — where Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties are all federally-designated health professional shortage areas and medically underserved areas and are among the 35 to 40 percent of people living below the poverty line — what do you think the chances are that you’ll be getting the care you need?
Luckily, there is hope via telemedicine. Telemedicine uses technology-like smart phones or Skype to provide health care to people in their homes. This can increase access, reduce costs and expand workforces.
Looking at access, if you are one of the people traveling over 30 miles for health care, imagine if you could access care for basic ailments, like urinary tract infections, pink eye, or strep throat, from home. Telemedicine allows you to do this. More people would be able to get help where they are.
Rather than paying $2,000 at an emergency room, people using telemedicine typically pay closer to $40 per encounter, which is a huge cost savings.
And looking at expanding workforce, depending on what type of doctor you’re seeing, you may have to wait hours, days, weeks, or even months to be seen and treated. Using telemedicine, some of the larger firms, like Teladoc, are able to see one patient every 10 seconds. Telemedicine allows people to get care when they need it.
The bottom line is that telemedicine is affordable and convenient, but its accessibility is limited in Texas. The Texas Medical Board passed a rule in April 2015, which made it harder for people to access telemedicine in Texas than in any other state except Arkansas.
Before you can use telemedicine services in Texas, you have to go see the doctor in person first or you have to travel to a healthcare site and have a medical provider facilitate a call, which most people would be perfectly capable of making on their own.
What this means is before you can start using this cheaper, more convenient service, you have to overcome several of the initial barriers that keep people from getting care in the first place.
You still have to travel miles to see a provider, you have to pay at least $100 for the visit, and you may have to wait a very long time to get an appointment. After you’ve done this, you can use telemedicine services for a year, after which you must repeat this process to continue telemedicine services.
The Texas Medical Board passed these rules under the guise of protecting health and safety. But 48 other states have decided that these types of regulations are not necessary to protect patients. In fact, even in Texas, the State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors rejected similar rules for mental health treatment specifically because no one is complaining about problems with telehealth services.
Telemedicine is safe, and it could help transform healthcare delivery in Texas if we weren’t living under the shadow cast by these rules. The board that passed these rules is made up mostly of doctors who are trying to protect their market from this game-changing innovation. It’s time for Texas to step into the sun, and remove the barriers to expanding telemedicine in Texas.
Kate Murphy is a fellow contributing to the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.