January 20th, 2020

Telemedicine, eConsults, and Other Remote ID Clinical Services Make So Much Sense — Why Isn’t Everyone Doing it?

The ID group at Mayo Clinic just published a small but important study on the use of remote ID telemedicine consults for hospitals that have no ID services on-site.

The consults were “asynchronous”, meaning that the ID consultants at the main hospital finished them within 24 hours — they didn’t have to respond immediately. Importantly, all the institutions shared the same electronic medical record, so the consultants could review notes, lab results, and other tests.

Comparing 100 cases who had “eConsults” with 300 historic controls, the investigators found that the cases with ID eConsults had a substantially better clinical outcome — a 70% (!!!) lower 30-day mortality.

These results didn’t come from some Magic Dust available only to survivors of the bitter cold Minnesota winters — the primary interventions recommended by the consultants included very straightforward (for an ID doctor) advice, such as antibiotic changes, antibiotic duration change, antibiotic deescalation, additional laboratory testing, and consultation with services other than infectious diseases.

The authors acknowledge the important limitations of the study, primarily the fact that the non-randomized design leaves it open to unmeasured confounders influencing the outcome.

Furthermore, since they utilized historical controls, changes in practice could have led to the improved outcomes, not the eConsults themselves.

Still, limitations notwithstanding, let’s imagine the effect isn’t quite this large — it’s still very impressive. As noted by Dr. Saurab Patel, the upper bound of the 95% confidence interval on the reduction in mortality was 30%! People who study health care quality and outcomes would take that any day of the week, thank you very much.

Furthermore, satisfaction among the clinicians ordering the consults was extremely high. Indeed, we find the same thing at our hospital, where we provide eConsults to our primary care clinicians and specialists for non-urgent questions that arise during outpatient care. I attended a meeting of primary care providers on the use of eConsults, and the enthusiasm for this service was off-the-charts high — they love them!

So based on a study like this and our experience, every clinical ID Division in academic medical centers and every ID private practice must be lining up to provide eConsults, telemedicine, or other forms of remote advice, right?

Well, not quite:

Only just over half the respondents do these kinds of consults currently, even though arguably the non-procedural and cognitive-based aspects of ID practice fit perfectly into this remote care model.

In the Discussion section of the paper, the authors cite two major reasons why a substantial fraction of ID doctors don’t do these sort of consultations:

Cost and technical challenges are major barriers to the widespread adoption of telemedicine.

Let’s take the second of these first, the technical challenges.

If you don’t have the same electronic medical record as your consulters, providing this kind of formal consultative service would be difficult, if not impossible. What we ID doctors do best is carefully review the relevant history, laboratory, and imaging data, and make recommendations from synthesizing this information. It’s critical that this review is as reliable as possible — especially since confirming details by talking to the patient may not be possible.

(Reminder:  ID doctors take the best histories. Thank you.)

Another challenge is institution-specific credentialing. Even affiliated hospitals in the same healthcare system may have different criteria and systems for credentialing their clinicians. This makes doing a remote consult on inpatients at other facilities far from straightforward — and doing it across state lines might actually be prohibited if the consultant is not licensed in that state.

Now on to the thorniest issue, which is cost. It’s not simply that we’re too busy. If these kinds of clinical services were valued highly enough, we would make time in our schedules to do them, pushing out lower value activities.

In the responses to my poll, the most enthusiastic endorsements of remote consultations come from settings where American-style fee-for-service compensation plays comparably minor role (if that) in a doctor’s salary. Europe, Canada, and here in the U.S., the VA — you get the idea. Says Dr. Ilan Schwartz from Canada:

We cover a catchment area from central Alberta to NW Territories — a geographic area almost 1/3 that of Canada! For some assessments I prefer ability to examine the patient, but for others, telehealth consult is in their best interest. Also sometimes roads are really icy, and if I can spare patients both the inconvenience and the risk of shleping to Edmonton, I will.

No surprise here! What Ilan does in Western Canada makes all kinds of sense, reminiscent of the ECHO research project using telemedicine to treat hepatitis C in remote areas of New Mexico.

But in a differently funded healthcare system — ours — where payment is overwhelmingly based on racking up face-to-face encounters and procedures, the time spent doing eConsults and telemedicine is time not spent in revenue-generating patient care.

And in most practices, eConsults score a big fat zero when it comes to RVUs, that loathsome metric for measuring a U.S. doctor’s “productivity”.

Time for that to change!

Because doing what’s best for patient care should motivate how we spend our clinical time, not racking up RVUs.

6 Responses to “Telemedicine, eConsults, and Other Remote ID Clinical Services Make So Much Sense — Why Isn’t Everyone Doing it?”

  1. Esther says:

    I agree it should change and we should get paid better but that’s a long way from actually happening. Productivity is nonexistent like you said but the flexibility of that lifestyle is amazing, for patient and provider! I didn’t go into medicine to make money but rather to help people. The reward of actually making a person feel better on the spot without having them to wait hours at a facility or navigate safely to a facility or even the convenience of continuing their work without interruption should speak for itself. So if you’re okay with a low salary, paying your own malpractice, your own dea with your home address being public knowledge, and keeping up with your cme, have a spouse who can provide healthcare coverage to you without these benefits being provided by the company you’re contracting with, then this can be a right fit. For me anyway. I’ve done it full time as an independent contractor for three years. Hoping Telemedicine would grow as it has much potential and benefit for the patient and much satisfaction for the provider. It’s been a blessing to have this lifestyle although I’m living the lifestyle of a resident again while I grow my family. I am hoping telemedicine grows and gets accepted in the community so I can do it long term and ofcourse do hope the pay will be better. thanks for your article!

  2. Justin says:

    I do 5-10 e-consults per day. They’re by far the most satisfying part of my practice. Surveys indicate that roughly half my consults result in the primary care doc being able to manage the endocrine problem without sending the patient to an in-person consult. I can’t imagine going back to the days before I was able to offer this service.

  3. Fares says:

    We’ve been doing it in South Dakota for over 10 years, and it’s been great. There are so may advantages and we get a very positive feedback from the other hospitals. We’ve been doing stewardship through telemedicine as well with several hospitals in the region as well. I strongly recommend it.

  4. R. Lemos says:

    With our current smart phones all curbside consults have turned into telemed nowadays.

  5. JTB says:

    This study is very interesting in that the telemedicine consults did not include a history or PE, which is what I have seen done in past with remote video and a bedside examiner. This style of EHR , image review would easily lend itself to more widespread adoption. – but unlikely to ever get reimbursed until new codes are adopted to allow for this….

  6. J. M. Johannesson says:

    Working within a system where this is exceptionally common (the only tertiary care hospital in Iceland), this not being used seems extremely odd. It’s cost- and time-effective, increases access to multidisciplinary care and overall leads to high-quality care.

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.