Because of health reform, the U.S. healthcare system is bracing for the overnight influx of an estimated 20 million or more newly insured patients on Jan. 1, 2014. Balancing supply and demand will be tricky because as millions clamor for health services, there will be an estimated 200,000 fewer physicians nationwide to provide them. That’s why so many people are counting on telemedicine to be the Great Equalizer.
Here’s the demographic challenge: most of the fastest growing states in the U.S. are in the northern plains, an area that isn’t exactly a doctor magnet. (North Dakota is our fastest growing state because of the Bakken shale oil fields.) Meanwhile, populations in some eastern states like Rhode Island and Michigan are actually declining. With telemedicine, physicians who might be twiddling their thumbs in Providence and Kalamazoo can help care for some of those drillers in the Dakotas.
States in the western U.S. and New England are the most “Obamacare-ready,” so they’re likely to see the biggest surge in demand. They could get help, however, from doctors in the 16 states that currently oppose Medicaid expansion (and probably won’t experience an immediate avalanche of new patients).
As Nirav Desai noted in a recent Hands On Telehealth post, matching healthcare supply and demand will depend in large measure on how well we utilize nurse practitioners and physician assistants. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, there are about 56,000 NPs and 30,000 PAs practicing in the U.S. As Nirav points out, telemedicine could connect these mid-level practitioners with a physician in a central location. They could examine most patients on their own, and consult with the physician on more complicated diagnoses.
No other industry has ever faced a more daunting task than what awaits the healthcare field next year. If you sell tires or toothpaste, no one has ever thrown a switch and handed you 20 million new customers instantly. But telemedicine gives our overtaxed healthcare system a decent chance of being able to connect practitioners with patients, from Pawtucket, Rhode Island to the boom towns of North Dakota.