The Obamacare-Inspired Solution to America's Doctor Shortage

Source: White House on Flickr

Don't look now, but Obamacare's open enrollment period for 2015 is scheduled to open in just five weeks, shortly after mid-term elections are over.

As you might imagine there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding the open enrollment period this year considering what happened last year. If you recall, IT-architecture problems bogged down the federally run health care exchange for the first two months, putting estimated enrollment figures behind by more than 1 million people at one point. Luckily, a late surge of enrollment by procrastinators in March allowed Obamacare's enrollment figures to find the mark and surpass estimates.

Obamacare uncertainty prevails
But, this year is a lot different than last. For starters, the open enrollment period is a mere three months (Nov. 15, 2014 to Feb. 15, 2015). Additionally, the "easy" enrollments are out of the way, meaning insurers and the Department of Health and Human Services will need to work together to educate and encourage the remaining uninsured to sign up for health insurance.

Yet, as we examined last week, it could also be a challenging time for consumers looking to get preventative care. Based on a report from the Physicians Foundation, which is released every other year, four out of every five doctors view their current patient docket as full or overextended. Furthermore, 44% of all physicians polled noted that they would actively look to reduce the number of new patients they take on. This creates quite the dilemma considering that 2015's enrollment estimates project that 5 million to 6 million new people will enroll on the exchanges in addition to the 7.3 million which were still paying members as of mid-August.

So, how does America solve its doctor shortage problem that's effectively being caused by the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate requiring everyone to purchase health insurance? Ironically the answer can be found by looking within the ACA and its ability to promote cutting-edge technology as a means of reducing doctors' burdens.

Technology leads the charge
To be clear, it was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009 that provided the impetus for health care companies to begin their switch from physical health records to electronic health records, or EHRs, not Obamacare. This transition, while it may seem trivial in nature with regard to reducing physical paper in the workplace, was the green flag for technology to take on a big role in the health care sector.

Obamacare, though, has provided a channel with which medical-based technologies can shine (as you'll see below) and lighten the load of physicians to the point where they may be able to handle an influx of new patients caused by Obamacare.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

Telemedicine: the answer to solving our nation's doctor shortage?
Telemedicine, or the idea of videoconference with your doctor from the comfort of your own home, had been considered taboo by health insurance companies prior to the adoption of Obamacare. However, as privately held telemedicine pioneer Teladoc has noted, insurance companies have recently been eager to jump on board with covering these virtual visits. Teladoc has signed agreements recently with Aetna and Blue Shield of California, run by WellPoint , to cover telemedicine visits, while also landing agreements with large corporations such as Home Depot, and T-Mobile.

According to Teladoc's sales figures, as reported by Fortune, the company doubled its revenue in 2013 and is on pace to again double its revenue this year. As CEO Jason Gorevic noted with regard to the Affordable Care Act, "It's certainly an accelerator for us." Funding has also been flowing into Teladoc like water as lenders see a potentially lucrative opportunity unfolding in telemedicine. A survey conducted by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health also noted that 52% of large businesses plan to introduce telemedicine as an option for their employees, up from 28% in 2014. 

Why telemedicine you ask? First, telemedicine allows patients and doctors to meet on their own terms without time being a major factor. It's not uncommon for doctors to fall behind schedule during their day treating patients, or patients to run late because of traffic heading to the doctor's office. These time constraints can be largely eliminated with the use of videoconferencing.

Secondly, telemedicine can prove to be extremely cost-effective over the long run. Being able to connect with a physician over the web can reduce unnecessary hospital or doctor visits, which can add up rapidly, as well as quickly combine the knowledge of multiple doctors via a video conference in order to efficiently expedite a diagnosis.

Finally, telemedicine could improve outcomes by leading to speedier diagnoses. It's not always convenient for people to travel from rural areas to a doctor's office, so telemedicine could wind up easing this concern.

These gadgets could play an important role, too
But, telemedicine alone won't alleviate doctor shortages. A number of other technological wonders are expected to step up and play a big role.

Source: Apple.

Apple's Health app, for starters, could be a major tool used by doctors to aid with, and expedite a diagnosis. Right now, admittedly, Apple's Health app is in the infancy stage. Following the release of its latest operating system iOS 8, Apple Health can only aggregate information from other health apps onto an easy-to-read single screen; but even then not all other health apps are compatible for Apple Health at the moment. In the future, however, as the Health app evolves it could become a hub for you basic medical information which your physician may rely on to get an accurate picture of your health.

There are other well-known companies and devices that have been working toward connecting patients with their doctors beyond the boundaries of a doctor's office for years.

Medtronic , for example, launched its Medtronic M-Link cellular accessory in 2010 which allows its cardiac device patients to have the information stored on their devices downloaded and securely sent to their doctor via the CareLink network. The idea here is regular observation of the data could improve a patients' overall health if changes needed to be made, and that it would ultimately reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor. 

By a similar token the king of wireless technology Qualcomm has also focused at least a portion of its future on the health care sector. Qualcomm's Life division, for instance, is working with its customers to develop devices that can wirelessly transmit data that goes into a cloud accessible by clinic computers, as well as a doctor's mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.

Ultimately, these are just three of a growing number of health-connectivity devices either on the market or under development.

The sky is the limit
The reality is that we haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg yet on technologies' potential to help doctors manage what's expected to be a large influx of patients. Will it work? Over the long run I suspect so, but there's certainly a trial and error period that tech-based health care providers are only now beginning to wade into. Could doctor's availability get worse before it gets better? I'd suggest that to be plausible considering the rapid influx of new patients from the ACA, but over time I view wireless devices and telemedicine playing a key role in allowing doctors to see more patients.

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Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Home Depot, and WellPoint. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Medtronic, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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