Research Alert

Background: In recent years, the rapid development of information and communications technology enabled by innovations in videoconferencing solutions and the emergence of connected medical devices has contributed to expanding the scope of application and expediting the development of telemedicine.

Objective: This study evaluates the use of teleconsultations (TCs) for specialist consultations at hospitals in terms of costs, resource consumption, and patient travel time. The key feature of our evaluation framework is the combination of an economic evaluation through a cost analysis and a performance evaluation through a discrete-event simulation (DES) approach.

Methods: Three data sets were used to obtain detailed information on the characteristics of patients, characteristics of patients’ residential locations, and usage of telehealth stations. A total of 532 patients who received at least one TC and 18,559 patients who received solely physical consultations (CSs) were included in the initial sample. The TC patients were recruited during a 7-month period (ie, 2020 data) versus 19 months for the CS patients (ie, 2019 and 2020 data). A propensity score matching procedure was applied in the economic evaluation. To identify the best scenarios for reaping the full benefits of TCs, various scenarios depicting different population types and deployment strategies were explored in the DES model. Associated break-even levels were calculated.

Results: The results of the cost evaluation reveal a higher cost for the TC group, mainly induced by higher volumes of (tele)consultations per patient and the substantial initial investment required for TC equipment. On average, the total cost per patient over 298 days of follow-up was €356.37 (US $392) per TC patient and €305.18 (US $336) per CS patient. However, the incremental cost of TCs was not statistically significant: €356.37 – €305.18 = €51.19 or US $392 – US $336 = US $56 (95% CI –35.99 to 114.25; P=.18). Sensitivity analysis suggested heterogeneous economic profitability levels within subpopulations and based on the intensity of use of TC solutions. In fact, the DES model results show that TCs could be a cost-saving strategy in some cases, depending on population characteristics, the amortization speed of telehealth equipment, and the locations of telehealth stations.

Conclusions: The use of TCs has the potential to lead to a major organizational change in the health care system in the near future. Nevertheless, TC performance is strongly related to the context and deployment strategy involved.

Journal Link: Journal of Medical Internet Research

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Journal of Medical Internet Research