Rural Workers’ Compensation and the Role of Telemedicine

We’ve talked about telemedicine before on the AMR blog, outlining some of the pros and cons, as well as addressing how it might be funded. This post focuses on workers’ compensation in rural areas, and how telemedicine could play a crucial role in improving healthcare experiences for rural workers.

As a refresher, telemedicine is care received or given via telecommunication. This means that if an injured worker is somewhere remote, said worker could receive limited treatment via telemedicine, if appropriate. This type of care wouldn’t work for injuries that require emergency treatment, but for minor injuries, the benefits could be significant.

Understanding that telemedicine could greatly benefit states with large, sweeping rural areas, Texas and its Department of Insurance Workers’ Compensation Research Division conducted a study to discover how, specifically, telemedicine can improve the workers’ compensation processes for rural workers.

The study highlighted two areas of potential benefit from telemedicine: designated doctor, and the second opinion process for spinal surgery. In both of these cases, an injured worker sees a physician other than his/her primary treating provider. Without telemedicine, the worker might have no choice but to see a doctor who may not be familiar with the workers’ comp system. But by using telemedicine, a worker can connect to a provider who is familiar with workers’ comp, improving the efficiency of the process and potentially leading to better care outcomes.

Texas isn’t the only state that could benefit from telemedicine, though. Rural workers across the country could potentially receive cheaper, more accessible, and more efficient healthcare with the use of telemedicine.

Some companies are already using telemedicine to decrease costs and to deliver more timely treatment to workers’ comp patients. Companies like Rising Medical Solutions, WorkCare Inc., and CorVel have already adopted telemedicine as a cost-efficient way to treat injured workers. As of 2015, according to CorVel CEO Gordon Clemons, a smartphone app for claimants was already in the works.

Some obstacles potentially stand in the way of the widespread implementation of telemedicine. In some states, doctors are prohibited from prescribing medications to patients unless they’ve had an in-person encounter with the patient. Without an established in-person patient-provider relationship, there is concern that the provider may not receive enough information to make a fully informed decision regarding the most appropriate care. There’s also the possibility that patients may not, whether intentionally or unintentionally, represent themselves adequately or accurately via phone or online interaction with a provider. Telemedicine is new to the workers’ compensation market, so workers could be wary of distance, as opposed to meeting with a doctor face-to-face. Finally, there is the issue of licensing and jurisdiction, which could limit where doctors are able to treat injured workers via telemedicine.

While telemedicine has many benefits that are particularly relevant for rural injured workers, it’s still in the early stages, and comes with its own challenges. In the coming years, the issues standing in the way of telemedicine may be solved and lead to more effective, safe, and efficient healthcare, to the benefit of rural workers, in particular.