Between the "graying of America" and the seemingly busy schedules of families these days, it's no wonder that the telehealth industry has been growing like never before. More than 20 million Americans received some type of remote medical care in 2017, and that number is projected to keep getting larger, according to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).
Telehealth as an industry
But if you think telemedicine is something fairly new, you may be surprised to learn that it has been around for more than 40 years, according to the ATA. Because of physician shortages, telemedicine allows improved access to healthcare in distant locations throughout the United States.
The ATA estimates that there are about 200 telemedicine networks currently in operation. More than half of all the hospitals in the country now use some form of telemedicine services, and even the Veterans Health Administration is using it to reach more than a half a million vets each year.
At the present time, 34 states and the District of Columbia require that private insurers cover telehealth consultations the same as they would cover in-person services. With the latest technology, it only requires that consumers and physicians download a health and wellness app for use on their cell phones and other electronic devices.
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Because of the popularity of the telehealth industry, experts in the medical community all agree that it will continue to grow as more companies are launched. But just how easy is it to open your own telehealth business? Are there lots of rules and restrictions that might make it unappealing?
According to Elizabeth Westbrook, government relations advisor at the law firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, many of the creative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs who seek to start new tech businesses aren't naturally inclined to consider the regulatory implications of their new venture, especially when it comes to the heavily regulated world of medicine.
"Healthcare (and, by extension, health IT) is regulated, not just by the federal government, but by state governments as well," said Westbrook. "Not only can state laws vary wildly, but many states have licensure laws that actually prohibit or at least hinder healthcare delivery across state lines where clinicians have not attained certain credentials or corporate structures have not been appropriately established. So anyone looking to launch a telehealth business needs to consider the laws of the location(s) in which they will launch and whether their business will be tenable in more than one state."
Jayme R. Matchinski, an attorney and member of the healthcare industry group at the law firm of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale PC in Chicago, stresses that key considerations and issues should be addressed by any healthcare provider or other entity or individual seeking to start a telehealth business, and include a variety of issues.
"Given the scope of practice, licensure, state board disciplinary actions and malpractice considerations, healthcare providers should carefully navigate the provision of professional services through telehealth and ensure regulatory compliance to avoid licensure and state board disciplinary actions," Matchinski said. [Looking for telemedicine software? Check out our best picks.]
"Navigating telehealth requirements for licensing, scope of practice and reimbursement can be challenging for healthcare providers," Matchinski added. "Evolving technology and healthcare delivery systems will continue to expand and increase the use of telehealth. There are many initiatives underway by CMS, Medicaid and private insurance companies to provide telehealth. And the regulatory landscape regarding telehealth is continuing to change and evolve."
You should also understand how to protect the telehealth technology that you put in front of patients, said Heather Alleva, a healthcare attorney also with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney.
"Whether you are a developer of a health-related digital platform or a clinician who wants to utilize new technology with your patients, you will need to work with and contract with other parties before patients can interact with the telehealth technology," she said. "Consider how to protect your intellectual property interests and limit liability that might result from technological 'bugs,' including those that might expose patient's health information to unauthorized use, and remember that payments between parties must usually reflect fair market value in the healthcare space."
Running afoul of healthcare regulations might impact your ability to share your telehealth technology with patients who could benefit from the services, so it is important to understand these regulations and the healthcare space before launching new projects. [Interested in opening your own private medical practice? Check out our advice.]
If you've already got a plan in place and want to focus on choosing the products and services you'll need to run your business, you can read our medical practice services reviews.