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ATA CEO: Telemedicine technology can mitigate physician shortages

Telehealth can ease physician shortages and provide patients with access to mental health services, but work still remains to remove barriers, ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson says.

The healthcare industry continues to struggle with issues like physician shortages and burnout, but telemedicine...

technology can be a boon to healthcare providers and patients alike. Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, told SearchHealthIT at the ATA18 conference that increasing access to mental healthcare and using technology to provide physicians with the flexibility to provide care from other locations are two important applications of telehealth.

To that end, ATA will work to remove barriers to and expand the availability of telehealth so that individuals and communities in need can get the most benefit from telemedicine technology, Johnson said.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What are some of the common issues in healthcare where telemedicine technology can be applied?

Ann Mond Johnson: There are a couple of things that we're talking about here at the conference. One is the fact that there's just a need for regulations to catch up with technology. Consumers have expectations that have been set in the rest of their lives with Uber, Amazon, whatever it might be, and they want those expectations extended into their healthcare experience.

The second is that there is a real need for ways to overcome what we would call insufficient workforce. There are just not enough clinicians to take care of everything that needs to be done. ... We have shortages, insufficient workforce in a number of areas. The ones that are really very compelling right now are what are seen in rural communities, as well as what is seen with
telemental health services, the fact that a significant percentage of counties in the United States do not have access to psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are older, they're retiring, they're not getting replaced sufficiently. So these are the kinds of things that I think are really front and center as it relates to telehealth.

Also think about the stigma associated with mental health, even though one out of five Americans has some sort of mental health issue. The reality is that there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it [and] the fact that a lot of people don't have the luxury of leaving work to go see a therapist. It's infinitely more convenient to go into a quiet area where they can do a consult with someone.

The other point that was made by one of our members earlier, Roy Schoenberg [president and CEO] at American Well, is that, point of fact, telemedicine technology affords a certain level of benefits for physicians [and clinicians] themselves. You know the whole issue of clinician burnout and the fact that not only are there not enough of them, they're overworked or they're just stressed. This affords a better lifestyle for many of them.

What do you see as the future of telemedicine technology, and what would you like to see when you come back to this conference next year?

Johnson: First of all, I want acknowledgement that our rate of change has to accelerate. We've had some real nice victories, what we call green shoots of promise like the CHRONIC Care Act. ... I will say that I think we're well past the point of why telemedicine; it's really let's get this going, let's really implement this.

One of the big things we haven't talked about enough, at this conference at least, is the fact that it is a given that a large employer in the United States is offering telehealth services to their employees, and they're doing it because they want their employees to be more productive. They are worried about productivity, they're worried about absenteeism and they know that if they offer specific services like telehealth to their employees, it's going to help them [and] it's going to support them in the process.

What's next for the ATA?

Johnson: One is that, as an organization, we have to collaborate with others. There are a number of organizations, many of whom are here today either on the exhibit floor or as attendees, who have and share a common goal of improving quality of life for all Americans, of providing [telemedicine] technology to make it easier for clinicians to do more good for more people. Together, we're going to be more effective when we work with others.

The second is that, I think collectively, we also have to change the story so that it's going to be easier for us to remove the barriers. So you look at issues of licensure or reimbursement. I think talking about why we're doing what we're doing is going to make it easier to change the story.

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