Hurricane Harvey dropped nearly 52 inches of rain on Houston in less than five days. But, as one doctor observed who treated patients during both Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina, "We didn't have telemedicine for Katrina …Telemedicine makes a big difference."
Telemedicine is a form of virtual health care and, in the months before Hurricane Harvey, the Texas Legislature passed numerous bills making telemedicine possible in the Lone Star State by eliminating regulatory obstacles and administrative shackles. That freedom means more Texans received the care they needed, even in the wake of a disaster.
Telemedicine played a life-saving role during and in the aftermath of Harvey. It enabled health care providers to set up remote telepharmacies, send medical records to on-site rescue personnel and diagnose infections caused by over-exposure to water.
In fact, even before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, telemedicine providers anticipated medical needs that might arise and strategized ways to compensate. For example, they could identify high-risk patients, give them special warnings and send them emergency contact information.
Here are just some of the bills the Legislature passed to make telemedicine a reality in Texas.
SB 1107 allows providers to dispense medications remotely, no longer requiring the doctor and patient to be face-to-face.
SB 1633 allows pharmacies in major urban centers to establish remote dispensing sites.
SB 922 made sure Medicaid would pay for telemedicine services and activities.
The good news is that the benefit of telemedicine in Texas will last long after Harvey recovery. As Nora Belcher, executive director of Texas E-Health Alliance said, "The Texas telemedicine market is now completely open for business."
The result will undoubtedly be new and exciting telemedicine capabilities as market forces encourage further innovation. Texans will gain tremendously as telemedicine expands access to care. Medical services will come to patients, wherever they are, rather than being limited to the walls of a medical facility.
Advanced cancer care that was previously available only at MD Anderson will now be accessible in rural west Texas. A pediatric cardiologist sitting in her office in Dallas can listen to a child with heart murmur in the Texas Panhandle. A man with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Raymondville (population 11,284) can have his oxygen levels checked four times a day without leaving his home in South Texas.
House calls are actually cheaper than hospital beds, and Texas now has something even better: digital house calls. Telemedicine is an almost mythical combination of better and cheaper. It is affordable for both patients and insurers, and it is easy for patients to use. Telemedicine is also beneficial for the simple reason that the alternative is often no care at all.
It's an example of how free societies can be innovative and productive.
The state of Texas deserves credit for doing the right thing for Texans, and just in time! Telemedicine was available to rescue Harvey victims. Houstonians have already benefited greatly from this powerful medical technology, and so will hundreds of thousands of other Texans in the future.
Waldman is a retired pediatric cardiologist and director of the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.