Arizona A Leader As Telemedicine Grows Across The Country

By Claire Caulfield
Published: Monday, November 2, 2015 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, November 2, 2015 - 1:03pm
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A new report shows that telemedicine, the practice of connecting doctors and patients over long distances using video and audio technology, is growing rapidly nationwide. 

IBIS World reported that telemedicine revenue is expected to grow 40 percent over the next five years. Dr. Ronald Weinstein, founding director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program, said this is an underestimate.

“A new trend is so called retail telemedicine, where you can, over the internet, quickly get a hold of a doctor, and that’s going to proliferate very rapidly,” Weinstein said.

Telemedicine has a long history in Arizona. In 1970, a time when 13 percent of Americans didn’t even have a phone, NASA was setting up equipment on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation for the Rural Papago Advanced Health Care Program. NASA used the same space technology that connected astronauts to their command centers to connect patients on the reservation to doctors in urban areas. The program ran until 1977, but the innovation didn’t end there.

“The current wave of telemedicine really started in 1996 when the Arizona State Legislature decided that telemedicine would be good for Arizona and took the initiative to actually create and fund the Arizona telemedicine program,” Weinstein said.

Arizona is considered to be a leader in telemedicine nationally and internationally. Telestroke-detection is one field that is growing rapidly. Dr. Bart Demaerschalk is director of the Telestroke program at the Mayo Clinic. He said time is of the essence during a stroke as 2 million brain cells are lost every minute. 

“Any patient presenting symptoms and signs of suspected stroke has immediate stroke expertise by way of audio-video telemedicine," Demaerschalk said. “They can hear the patient, the patient can hear and see them. They can look at the CAT scan of the brain, and they can immediately start time-sensitive treatment.” 

In addition to telestroke technology, Weinstein said Arizona is a leader in teleradiology and telepsychiatry. In fact, Weinstein said the majority of patients in Northern Arizona who are on Medicaid receive their services via telepsychiatry.

Numerous studies have shown that telemedicine saves doctors, insurance companies and patients money. It is also beneficial in connecting rural and elderly patients with services. However, it isn’t without its criticism. Some say telemedicine is ripe for prescription abuse. Weinstein said telemedicine in Arizona is monitored closely by the state legislature and medical boards.

“There’s always a downside risk of someone abusing a system, but in terms of the total size of the industry that’s a very small component.”

And that industry is large. In the past year the number of telemedicine cases went from an estimated 10 million cases to about 15 million, according to the Arizona Telemedicine Program.

As for the future of telemedicine, audio and video technology is being tested in ambulances and helicopters across the nation. Increasing access to online medical records and even telehealth apps are in the works.