Telehealth policies continue to grow. Whether it actually reduces healthcare costs and improves outcomes is still a point of some contention. Researchers at University of California Davis (UCD) looked at how telehealth impacts patients at a basic level: driving costs.
Spanning across two decades, the study, published in Value in Health, examines 18 years of UCD’s clinical records from 1996 to 2013, evaluating inpatient and outpatient interactive video visits for 19,246 patients. Patients usually still visit their primary care doctor, but they also consult a UC specialist via video consultation. The cost savings were measured based on patient travel to a telemedicine center near their home versus traveling to UC Davis Health in Sacramento for specialty care.
Telemedicine visits saved patients an aggregate of nearly nine years of travel time, five million miles and US$3 million in costs. For each individual, these numbers are a little more modest. Over the 20 year period, a patient could see an average cost savings of four hours of driving time, 278 miles and US$156 in direct travel costs.
The UCD team researchers measured environmental impacts from the avoided car trips. Telemedicine helped saved almost 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 50 metric tons of carbon monoxide, 3.7 metric tons of nitrogen oxides and 5.5 metric tons of volatile organic compounds. It’s a big contributor to cleaner air, a factor often missing from previous evaluations.
If the study paramaters were expanded to include rural areas that are underserved by medicine and reliable public transportation, the results are very different. The real costs of fuel, mileage and time are all measurable savings from telemedicine to patients. This is the case in many African countries, where people often have to walk long distances to reach a healthcare facility before waiting in queues for hours before being helped. These should combine into encouraging more patients to seek medical care. As telemedicine technology advances costs to patient will drop, reinforcing increasing access.
African healthcare systems have a way to go before telehealth benefits can be realized and services be implemented on a large scale. Infrastructure, affordability and connectivity remain challenges.