Written by: Genesis Verduzco
Telehealth has become a vital tool to deliver timely and effective medical care, particularly in rural communities across our state. Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states for overall population growth and along with that growth comes a need for healthcare services. At the same time, Arizona ranks as having one of the worst physician shortages in the nation.
According to the University of Arizona Center for Rural Health, Arizona meets only 41 percent of its primary care physician needs. In fact, more than 95 percent of Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Yuma County residents live in a federally designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). It is estimated that by the year 2030 Arizona will need an additional 1,941 primary care physicians to meet patient needs.
How is telemedicine helping address the shortage?
In the limited areas, it’s been used, telemedicine has overwhelmingly improved the health of patients and communities. Telemedicine or “virtual care” has advanced to the point where, in some cases, the quality of care provided is equivalent to face-to-face patient care. In fact, some patients have not needed to be physically transported, opting instead for virtual care in a matter of seconds to minutes, from a specialist hundreds of miles away. This is specifically helpful in rural communities that are faced not only with a physician shortage but also with a lack of medical specialists.
We are slowly starting to see more integration of telemedicine programs among rural hospitals, specifically for neurology and ICU care. Providing telehealth for patients in rural communities not only ensures the right care at the right time but additional out-of-pocket savings in the thousands. Telemedicine improves access to additional resources and care that otherwise would be difficult or unavailable in the patient’s community.
How did Governor Ducey and legislators support telemedicine?
Now more than ever, thanks to the support of Governor Ducey and our state legislators, hospitals will begin to see even more cost savings. Historically, Arizona hospitals providing certain services through telemedicine had to absorb the costs because they were not reimbursed.
During this legislative session, SB 1089 was passed and signed into law. Sponsored by Senator Heather Carter, SB 1089 will require commercial insurers to cover medical services provided by telemedicine so long as the same service would be covered in person. Known as “coverage parity,” this new law is scheduled to go into effect December of 2020.
What can we expect for the future?
As we move forward with coverage parity and today’s digital world, we will continue to see more and more healthcare services provided through telemedicine. We will also start to see more patients demanding telemedicine and other types of “digital care” such as more advanced health apps and wearables. Virtual care is becoming stronger and more compelling, and this will empower patients to access their healthcare, use healthcare more efficiently and, most importantly, take charge of their own healthcare.
Although telemedicine may seem like an ideal solution to fixing Arizona’s physician shortage, it is a compliment, not a replacement to the good work that healthcare providers provide for their patients. There is still much room to cover when it comes to addressing the physician shortage. In the meantime, telemedicine will continue to be the new norm in providing high-quality and timely care to patients across the state.
Genesis Verduzco is the Communications Manager for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association (AzHHA). Now in its 80th year, AzHHA’s mission is to promote the best healthcare outcomes for Arizonans through Better Care, Better Health and Lower Costs, thereby making Arizona the Healthiest State in the Nation.