- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2014

A Veterans Affairs hospital in Michigan has seen a jump in the use of “telehealth” that experts say could reshape the medical field.

Telehealth is a catch-all name given to technology-driven ways for doctors and patients to interact. Usually it refers to phone calls and emails in place of face-to-face visits.

Telehealth can allow doctors to stay in more constant contact with patients, Dr. Robert Berenson told The Washington Times.

“A visit is a snapshot in time. Illnesses are evolving. It’s really important to know which direction it’s evolving,” said Dr. Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.

The Aleda E. Lutz Medical Center in Saginaw, Michigan, has been working to improve its use of telehealth, and in 2013 was named one of the “Most Wired” health care systems in the U.S. by the Hospitals and Health Networks magazine.

According to the VA’s inspector general, in fiscal 2013 alone the hospital saw the use of telehealth skyrocket from 1,128 encounters to 14,473.

The VA said that since fiscal 2003 there have been more than one million interactions using telehealth, an area the department is working to expand to give patients greater access to doctors.

The agency is trying “to become a 21st century health care organization” using technology to create “an opportunity to enhance the patient health care experience and engage patients,” VA press releases state.

Patients have usually preferred phone calls with doctors versus sending them emails, Dr. Berenson said.

“One of the problems with doing it by email is you don’t have confirmation, as the patient, that somebody has actually read it and is going to respond,” he said. “If you could solve the problem with a five minute phone call, that’s what people would rather have over a series of email exchanges.”

Despite allowing greater communication between patients and doctors, some practices are shying away from telehealth because it’s difficult to generate revenue, Dr. Berenson said. Patients pay for in-office visits, but it’s difficult to get them to pay for each phone call or sent email.