As healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to skyrocket, insurance companies are scrambling for any way possible to cut their expenses. That budget-consciousness has fueled the growth of telemedicine, in which patient and doctor communicate remotely – via videoconferencing or some other electronic means. Today, telemedicine is being used for everything from diagnosing the common cold to monitoring patients with congestive heart failure. As telemedicine becomes more widely accepted, however, does it pose risks for patients?

There’s no doubt that telemedicine offers tremendous benefits. If you’re experiencing a stomach bug, for example, it would certainly be much more convenient to stay home and talk to your doctor via Skype than drive yourself over to an urgent care office. And, telemedicine can offer people who live in rural and remote areas the chance to be evaluated by world-class experts.

One recent study estimated that if fully-implemented across the country, telemedicine could save U.S. employers $6 billion a year on healthcare costs. Especially if those savings are passed along to the consumer, there are many good reasons to encourage this use of technology.

But there are risks too. There is a doctor shortage in this country that is only expected to get much worse in the next decade. If busy doctors become too dependent on technology to help them work through their jam-packed schedules, the standard of care may be compromised.

In some cases, there’s no substitute for physical interaction between patient and physician. If an orthopedist doesn’t touch a patient’s swollen ankle before diagnosing a sprain, he might miss a subtle fracture he would have felt during an in-person visit. Without the rapport that comes with face-to-face contact, a doctor might not be able to detect a patient’s spiraling depression.

Because telemedicine is dependent upon the use of technology, it also comes with the added risk of equipment malfunction. If a doctor can’t accurately see a patient’s skin tone via his videoconferencing equipment, for example, he might miss an important diagnostic clue for detecting jaundice or some other serious condition. An even more frightening scenario could occur if a remote heart rate or blood sugar monitor is not accurately transmitting a patient’s data to his doctor.

Practicing medicine remotely could also lead to increased miscommunication among the treating physicians. For example, there has already been at least one reported case in which a radiologist was sent an X-ray for a remote patient, but failed to review it in a timely manner because it wasn’t made clear that the case was an emergency.

Telemedicine could also increase the risk for breaches of patient privacy. Whenever sensitive medical information is transmitted via computer networks, there is the potential that it will be exposed. Even if the breach is not deliberate, there are serious penalties under federal and state law in such cases.

The number of malpractice and other types of claims involving telemedicine remains small, but it is expected to rise as high-tech doctor-patient interaction becomes more commonplace. It is estimated that more than 7 million patients will utilize telemedicine in 2018, compared to just 350,000 in 2013.

State and federal regulations to protect consumers from the risks of telemedicine are just catching up with the technology. While politicians, bureaucrats and insurance industry lobbyists debate over the necessary precautions, hundreds of thousands of people are being treated through telemedicine, with varying degrees of safety.

If you have had complications from receiving treatment via telemedicine, please contact the attorneys in Sommers Schwartz’s Medical Malpractice Litigation Group today to discuss your situation.