Telemedicine, as with many tech fields, can be spoken of in many different terms when it comes to cost. In one sense, telemedical equipment of the most functional variety – take-home wireless routers that connect to medical peripherals designed to beam your vital statistics directly to your doctor – are still somewhere between 'too expensive' and 'insanely expensive,' at least from the perspective of a home buyer.
But in another sense, telemedical costs are absurdly low compared to traditional medical expenses. According to a survey by SoftwareAdvice.com, for example, the average telemedical teleconference for a minor medical issue costs an average of $ 45 – compared to an ER visit for the same minor issue, which can run up to multiple thousands of dollars just for having a patient wait in bed for a few hours while a doctor gets around to them.
Equipment Is the Difference
The big cost difference is in equipment. On the one hand, most Americans already have the two most basic elements of telemedical communication: a phone and an email account. Many have the 'advanced toolset' – a webcam, a microphone, an Internet connection, and possibly a smartphone or tablet. Setting up a system to take advantage of these preexisting tools can be quite inexpensive without sacrificing much utility – just the cost of some software that can be easily installed by a patient on their home computer to allow for secure videoconferencing.
On the other hand, those last few percentage points of utility are remarkably pricey. It's one thing to monitor your post-operation patient's recovery process with a five-minute videoconference on Skype – it's absolutely another to loan them a 'medical watch' that will automatically update you if they suffer a significant fever, elevated heart rate, or other significant deviation from the standard vital signs. That can cost several hundred dollars per patient per month – which still might save you money compared to an ER visit, but it's a high initial investment.
The Security Question
The largest reason a facility may choose to go for the proprietary equipment rather than reliably on a patient's existing devices? HIPAA. Privacy laws are a huge challenge to telemedicine; as necessary as they are (and they are necessary!), there are very few consumer-level wireless devices that offer a level of encryption that satisfy HIPAA regulations. Using one for any form of record that would end up on the patient's medical records is that a legal quicksand that few practices are interested in getting stuck in.
But Who Will Pay For It?
That is the big question – despite a federal initiative to support telehealth services for all Americans, there are still only 22 states that require insurance carriers to return physicians doctors for telemedical services and traditional services. Most others are unregulated, meaning it's completely possible for a doctor to provide telemedicine services to a patient and have to bill them directly (or absorb the cost themselves.) In a few – most notably Idaho – telemedicine is not just 'an open question, 'it's actually completely illegal!
Neverheless, every passing month seems to bring several telemedicine bills in front of various state legislatures. Experts agree that remote health is a field that is inevitable – it's just a question of how long it will take for the most stubborn states to catch on.