One of every three patients are sent to a specialist each year in the United States. Because specialists offer more advanced care than primary care doctors, they’re almost guaranteed to play a critical role in any patient’s life at some point – from addressing heart trouble to a melanoma scare to kidney issues.
But specialty care is riddled with challenges, from the inability to find a provider to long waiting times for appointments. Why?
One major problem is a lack of specialists in rural areas. Specialized providers usually gravitate to the larger patient pools found in cities; they may also be drawn to large universities or health systems that offer opportunities for research and teaching. While that’s an understandable preference, it can cost rural patients, who count only 30 specialists per 100,000 residents. Urban areas count 263 specialists per 100,000 residents – yet it’s rural patients who often have higher rates of chronic disease like diabetes, heart failure and COPD, as well as higher mortality rates.
The repercussions are dismal for both patients and providers. Patients must choose between waiting months for appointments at clinics that are hours away or skipping specialty care altogether. Specialists try to address these shortages by visiting different clinics and hospitals on different days. Some pediatric clinicians are so specialized that they maintain multiple offices, driving from county to county each day – spreading their availability over a wider geographic area but also cutting into the number of patients they can see.
Another issue? Referrals. Manual referrals can be issued a variety of ways: emailed, handwritten on a notepad or faxed to the specialist’s practice. Some referrals are generated in the patient’s EHR, passing through a digital approval process or other database before sending the specialist an appointment request. Still another system may ask the patient to schedule the visit.
None of these methods guarantee the specialist gets enough clinical information from the PCP – in fact, 70 percent of specialists say they don’t get adequate data, which limits their ability to make medical decisions. There’s also no way to know if a referral is completed. 25 to 50 percent of referring physicians don’t find out if their patients ever see the specialist recommended.
Telehealth Advantages for Specialty Services
The good news is that virtual health can dissolve specialty care obstacles in several ways:
- Patients can connect to remote specialists – especially useful for rural patients or children in hospitals without pediatric specialists.
- Specialists can consult virtually in real time during a PCP visit, helping them diagnose accurately and eliminating the need for an extra visit.
- Telemedicine’s immediacy can save lives after a stroke or heart attack, by connecting a paramedic to a neurologist or cardiologist in those first critical minutes.
- Specialists can provide care across a wider geographic area without having to drive to multiple offices or counties. If a patient cancels an appointment, it can be rescheduled quickly instead of waiting for the provider’s next visit to the patient’s area.
Breaking the Barriers to Specialty Care
Finally, there’s another reason telemedicine can enable specialty care - interoperable medical devices like digital stethoscopes, exam cameras, ultrasounds and others. Effective virtual care is predicated on the ability to collect and share evidence – which historically has dissuaded some specialists from telemedicine, since simple Direct To Consumer video calls can’t take the place of a thorough clinical exam. However, today’s evidence-based telemedicine can provide the real-time data specialists need for productive virtual consults.
Want a deeper look at the real statistics on specialty care? Take a look at our latest infographic to find out how the right telemedicine solution is helping both patients and clinicians resolve specialty challenges.