The next wave of telemedicine, in which providers are now making investments, will retool the entire healthcare industry, according to a trio of experts in the field.

As telehealth visits for patients are growing exponentially across the country, health systems and hospitals are gearing up for the broad application of telemedicine technology across the entire care continuum.

Dozens of initiatives are already underway in areas such as pharmacy, nursing, telestroke assessments, and the creation of “digital communities” centered on patients with specific conditions, according to Win Vaughan, acting president of virtual health services at Englewood, CO-based Catholic Health Initiatives.

“From a consumer-driven perspective, everybody in healthcare is going to have to offer these kinds of services,” Vaughan says.

A virtual pharmacy program at CHI is paying off for the health system in several key metrics, including patient satisfaction and reduction of adverse medication incidents, and has tremendous potential in terms of cost avoidance such as readmission reductions, he says.

The virtual pharmacy model at CHI features pharmacists who process medication orders remotely. “We can have a pharmacist who works from home or from a centralized hub. They have remote access to electronic medical records… They just do order management. They don’t get distracted with other activities.”

The program has freed up time for hospital-based pharmacists to work closer with physicians and their patients, Vaughan says. “If you have pharmacists doing clinical activities with patients from admission to discharge, you avoid adverse reactions and pharmacists can make recommendations to the doctors who ordered the drugs.”

CHI has begun assessing the financial impact of the virtual pharmacy program, and the early data is promising, he says. At a 65-bed hospital in the health system, CHI estimates it is saving at least $87,000 per month by having a virtual pharmacist review medication orders. “You have to make some assumptions about how much an adverse drug event costs the health system,” he says.

Until payment reform catches up with telemedicine retooling in the healthcare industry, financing will be the main obstacle to growth, Vaughan says.

“We’re trying to find ways to generate enough revenue from the virtual health programs that we can make them sustainable… That’s the tricky part,” he says, adding the virtual pharmacy program is a sustainable model but telehealth patient visits with specialists and “third-party” healthcare providers are financially problematic. “In telehealth visits, we are restricted to working with entities that have responsibility for total cost of care.”

By Christopher Cheney, for HealthLeaders Media, August 24, 2015