Telemedicine takes off in Texas

Jennifer Liu

A bill passed this May could completely change the game for the delivery and accessibility of health care to Texans.

Telehealth is a health service provided to a patient through audiovisual communication, such as over the phone or internet, according to the bill.

Senate Bill 1107, authored by Republican senators Charles Schwertner from Georgetown and Charles Perry from Lubbock, also removes the requirement that physicians and patients must meet in person before using the method.

Although Texas is the last state to legalize and regulate telehealth, the University of Texas has been keeping up with the game. The UT Medical Branch in Galveston’s Center for Telehealth Research and Policy has published 32 articles and 55 presentations since 2002.

The Texas Medical Board voted against allowing telemedicine in 2015 due to concerns over patient safety. The bill allows the board to establish any rules necessary to ensure the delivery of quality care to patients receiving these services and to prevent any possible abuse or fraud.

According to the bill, telehealth and telemedicine cannot be held to a higher standard of care than services provided in an in-person setting.

The bill also outlines what constitutes a viable patient-physician relationship. For example, one restriction states that a relationship is void if a doctor prescribes any drug or device that terminates a pregnancy.

According to Edward Bernacki, professor and executive director for healthcare solutions at Dell Medical School, the two most significant applications of the bill will be patient monitoring and follow-up, and triage of patients in primary care in order to prioritize physician appointments.

If integrated into current medical practices, Bernacki said telehealth will improve patient care and decrease hospitalization by monitoring patients and their adherence to medical protocols.

"At Dell Med, it will increase our ability to interact with patients and physicians throughout Central Texas, not just Austin where we are based,” he said. “It will also allow consultation between our specialty physicians and primary care physicians in various parts of the state."

Kristi Henderson, vice president for Virtual Care and Innovation at Seton Healthcare, said this bill tackles the issues of both healthcare accessibility and lowering costs.

“No longer is the one-size-fits-all model necessary. When healthcare can be delivered safely and securely via a mobile device, the state now has the ability to do so without burdensome regulations,” Henderson said.

Although this technology holds many promises for the medical field in general, Bernacki said current medical students are in a gray area concerning their participation in the delivery of these services.

“I am unsure of the participation of medical students in the dialogue between physicians and patients because of privacy concerns and informed consent rules,” he said.

However, engineering and computer science students have something to gain by this bill, he said.

“There is a role for IT and engineering students to develop software for this emerging industry,” Bernacki added.

Henderson said she sees imminent potential in fully integrating and permanently embedding telemedicine training and clinical rotations into current medical curricula at UT Austin.

“Healthcare looks different today and the curriculum of healthcare professionals needs to incorporate the advances in technology to fully prepare the students for practice,” she said.