AMA Move Could Hurt Telemedicine

August 22, 2012 by InTouch Health

At the AMA’s annual meeting in June, the New York delegation introduced a resolution urging the Department of Health and Human Services to review telehealth initiatives being implemented by major health insurance carriers like Blue Cross and United Healthcare.

The AMA is concerned that telemedicine as practiced by Optum Health (a subsidiary of United Healthcare) will siphon off business from local physicians who are willing and able to provide the same services.

The resolution specifically refers to the new NowClinic program (a joint venture of Optum and a software firm called American Well). NowClinic plans to provide patients with a 10-minute consultation with a remote physician for just $45, payable by credit card. It’s an arrangement that already has the approval of the New York State Department of Health.

The AMA’s reaction is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. By opposing what they see as essentially a low-cost “Skype-a-doc” program, the AMA is turning a blind eye to the high-end uses for telemedicine. It’s one thing to remotely diagnose a head cold. It’s quite another to provide cutting-edge telestroke and tele-ICU technology.

In the resolution’s long list of attorney-like “Whereas” clauses, we find this nugget of misinformation: “A face-to-face visit is needed to provide an initial examination sufficient to engage in an effective patient-physician relationship.”

That’s simply not true – and the AMA should be more careful in its pronouncements. Yes, it’s possible that a NowClinic physician in Sacramento can potentially cut into the profits and patient base of a doctor in Buffalo, but so can the nurse practitioner at the Take Care clinic at the nearby Walgreen’s pharmacy.

We can certainly understand some of the AMA’s reservations about telehealth services provided by insurers. But passing this resolution would be a big step backward for telemedicine in the U.S.

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