“Telemedicine” or “Telehealth” are the terms most often used when referring to clinical diagnosis and monitoring that is delivered by technology. Telemedicine encompasses healthcare provided via real time two-way video conferencing; file sharing, including transmission of health history, x-rays, films, or photos; remote patient monitoring; and consumer mobile health apps on smart phones, tablets, and devices that collect data and transmit it to a healthcare provider. Telemedicine is increasingly being used for everything from diagnosing common viruses to monitoring patients with serious long-term health issues.
The American Telemedicine Association reports that majority of hospitals now use some form of telemedicine. Two years ago, there were approximately 20 million telemedicine video consultations; that number is expected to increase to about 160 million by 2020. An estimated one-third of employer group plans already cover some type of telehealth.
Telemedicine implicates legal and regulatory issues as licensing, prescribing, credentialing, and cybersecurity. Pennsylvania recently passed legislation joining the Interstate Medical Licensing Compact, an agreement whereby licensed physicians can qualify to practice medicine across state lines within the Compact if they meet the eligibility requirements. The Compact enables physicians to obtain licenses to practice in multiple states, while strengthening public protection through the sharing of investigative and disciplinary information.
Federal and state laws and regulations may differ in their definitions and regulation of telemedicine. New Jersey recently passed legislation authorizing health care providers to engage in telemedicine and telehealth. The law establishes telemedicine practice standards, requirements for health care providers, and telehealth coverage requirements for various types of health insurance plans. Earlier this year, Texas became the last state to abolish the requirement that patient-physician relationships must first be established during an in-person patient/doctor visit before a telemedicine visit.
As telemedicine use increases, there will likely be an increase in related professional liability claims. One legal issue that arises in the context of telemedicine involves the standard of care that applies. The New Jersey statute states that the doctor is held to the same standard of care as applies to in-person settings. If that is not possible, the health care provider is required direct the patient to seek in-person care. However, the standard of care for telemedicine is neither clear nor uniform across the states.
Another issue that arises in the context of telemedicine is informed consent, especially in terms of communication, and keeping in mind that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that only the doctor, and not staff members, can obtain informed consent from patients. Miscommunication between a healthcare provider and patient is often an underlying cause of medical malpractice allegations in terms of whether informed consent was obtained.
In addition, equipment deficiencies or malfunctions can mask symptoms that would be evident during an in-person examination or result in the failure to transmit data accurately or timely, affecting the diagnosis or treatment of the patient.
Some of these issues will likely ultimately be addressed by legislative or regulatory bodies but others may end up in the courts. According to one medical malpractice insurer, claims relating to telemedicine have resulted from situations involving the remote reading of x-rays and fetal monitor strips by physicians, attempts to diagnose a patient via telemedicine, delays in treatment, and failure to order medication.
A recent Pennsylvania case illustrates how telemedicine may also impact the way medical malpractice claims are treated in the courts. In Pennsylvania, a medical malpractice lawsuit must be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred. Transferring venue back to Philadelphia County, the Superior Court in Pennsylvania found that alleged medical malpractice occurred in Philadelphia — where the physician and staff failed to timely transmit the physician’s interpretation of an infant’s echocardiogram to the hospital in another county where the infant was being treated.
The use of telemedicine will likely have wide-reaching implications for health care and health care law, including medical malpractice.