NJ Lawmakers Consider Bill to Regulate Telemedicine

By Erin Delmore

New Jersey legislators are considering a bill to regulate telemedicine: the use of videoconferencing between a medical professional and patient.

“You have the access to see a physician, say, at 10 o’clock at night, 11 o’clock at night. They’re available,” said St. Luke’s University Health Network Director of Telemedicine Phil Witkowski. “We’re looking at telemedicine to not only handle the urgent care use case, we’re also looking at following up on chronic care disease management and follow-up for post surgical.”

The technology is already being used at St. Luke’s University Health Network and in more than 60 percent of health care institutions nationwide, according to a federal study released in August. A state Senate committee approved legislation to set standards for the growing practice. Karen Olanrewaju testified before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.

“It allows us to match the best professional with the most highly skilled strategists to work with a child and family regardless of their location throughout the state. So we don’t have concerns about availability of practitioners in certain neighborhoods. We can pair a practitioner from Bergen County with a child or family in Burlington, Atlantic and vice versa,” said Sunny Days Early Childhood Developmental Services Program Director Olanrewaju.

Advocates say in a lot of cases, this is all it takes: doctors can tackle a common cold, chronic illness or follow-up care right through a screen. No risk of infection. No travel time.

“Families who are comfortable with computer technology like it because they can actually move around the house with an iPad or a portable mobile computer, or a laptop and take the guidance from the practitioner who’s giving suggestions and strategies to meet a specific goal that they’re working on without the practitioner being in the home,” Olanrewaju said.

While the methodology is taking off, even its biggest supports say it can’t — and shouldn’t — replace hands-on treatment.

“It’s designed to handle the more common cold and routine care that would walk into an urgent care setting or a primary care practice. It would not be great, for example, in the case of strep throat, where we need to do a full strep test to really diagnose that. In addition, we do not prescribe narcotics on our platform,” Witkowski said.

That’s a key part of the legislation: the bill would have doctors meet with a patient in person before prescribing potentially addictive drugs. It would set specific practice guidelines with the State Board of Medical Examiners and would have private insurance companies cover telemedicine services at the same rate as in-person visits. That’s how it goes in 32 of the 50 states. The bill targets two-way video conferencing — not doctor-patient visits by telephone, email, text or instant messaging. While many health care professionals say it’s as easy as hopping on Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangout, Olanrewaju asked legislators to require the use of a secure platform.