Telemedicine could thrive in Alabama with changes to healthcare system

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Since the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was passed, expanding Medicaid has been a hotly debated topic.

Governor Robert Bentley has resisted calls to expand the system. He addressed the topic Monday saying, "I have worked hard during my first term and the legislature has helped me. We have totally revitalized the Medicaid system in this state. We have gone from a  service basis now we are going to a outcomes service basis and it's going to improve the lives of people who get Medicaid. It's going to help rural hospitals. It's going to help the healthcare out in rural areas."

The governor addressed one topic we hear about frequently -- rural health providers struggling to keep up.

However, there's a growing industry that actually looks poised to thrive under those conditions.

Telemedicine allows doctors to weigh in from a distance, using videoconferencing and other tech, and it could bridge a lot of gaps with current rules, regulations, and restrictions.

Hospitals, by nature, have to do a lot of reactionary treatment, but that comes with less dependable payment than, say, specialists.

Global Partnership for Telehealth CEO Rena Brewer notes, "Rural communities have difficulty attracting specialties and sub-specialties to come into their community."

Telemedicine could allow all hospitals to offer advice and sessions with leading experts, while keeping some of that revenue in-house.

Brewer goes on, "If those doctors order lab work or if they order scans or x-rays, if you do it by telemedicine, then those orders will be carried out within the local hospital. So you get that ancillary revenue coming in that would have left the community if that patient had traveled to the specialty center for those visits."

Plus, part of the Affordable Care Act penalized hospitals if they need to re-admit Medicare patients for the same problem within thirty days, also opening a window for telemedicine.

"Hospitals are very incentivized to keep these patients well," explains Brewer, "to discharge them in the best shape they can possibly be, and then to help follow them, so that their issue doesn't exacerbate or create a situation where they're in a crisis within that month post-discharge."

That could mean regular check-ins via telemedicine.

All told, this developing tech could become a healthcare mainstay in Alabama given changes in the landscape.

It's ready to serve in new ways.

Brewer does concede, "Typically, if you need stitches, if you've got to have your broken bones set, you're going to have to go in person."

But even in those situations, telehealth can make your life easier.

"There are many things like follow-up visits" says Brewer, "How many times have we gone to a physician and all he did was read the lab work or look at the wound. These kind of things, you can certainly do by telemedicine."

Plus, it's better equipped now for routine visits, rather than just consultations. Doctors can use new tools to not only look in the throat and ears but also to listen to the lungs and heart.

This can be a big boon for people who have trouble getting to a doctor.

Brewer points out, "Oftentimes, even the transport of a nursing home resident to a facility, whether it's a physician's office or a hospital, there's injuries that occurred in that transport. Many of these appointments could be easily done by telemedicine"

Now there are still costs to get doctors and hospitals set-up with equipment, but the telehealth industry folks like Brewer say, "Eventually, I think consumers will demand it, and that will be what drives telehealth forward."