As midterms approach, a debate only seems fitting. But this wasn’t a political one between candidates — it was an opportunity for two medical experts to voice their opinions on an important question: In its current state, is telemedicine cost-effective?
At the Connected Health Conference in Boston on October 18, Dr. Andrew Watson and Dr. Ateev Mehrotra took the stage to make their cases.
Watson is a practicing surgeon in UPMC’s division of colorectal surgery and the vice president of clinical information technology transformation for UPMC’s international division. He’s also the president of the American Telemedicine Association, so it comes as no surprise that he argued in favor of telehealth’s cost-effectiveness.
Mehrotra is an associate professor of healthcare policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He argued against telemedicine cost-effectiveness.
The debate began with Watson’s opening statement. He noted that the use of telemedicine benefits numerous healthcare stakeholders. Doctors are able to expand their practice and hospitals can decrease length of stay. Telehealth also addresses provider shortages. Patients like being able to stay home and get faster care.
Telemedicine, Watson argued, is the natural evolution of healthcare. “I know it’s emerging,” he said. “It’s not for everybody, but telehealth is working.”
Then Mehrotra made his opening remarks. He noted that the definition of cost-effectiveness is a number. The numerator is how much something costs, while the denominator is the health benefits or how much the patient’s health improved.
Mehrotra said there’s little evidence that telemedicine is improving health outcomes. “My view is that telehealth is increasing spending,” he added.
During the Q&A portion as well as their closing comments, Watson and Mehrotra had the opportunity to drive home their individual points.
The healthcare community needs to recognize that it’s on a learning curve when it comes to telehealth, Watson said. Though it’s early on the road, we’re starting to see the value in it, he added.
Mehrotra noted telemedicine could result in a reduction in cost if the sickest patient populations were using it. But healthier populations are more likely to use telehealth, he said.
To determine a winner, moderator Dr. Alistair Erskine, the chief digital health officer at Partners HealthCare, asked for a bit of audience participation. Based on louder cheers from the crowd, Watson was determined to be the winner.
Regardless of the results of the conference debate, the question of telehealth cost-effectiveness will continue to be an important one throughout the foreseeable future.
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