Posted by Bill Sandweg on 13 May 2019.
Telemedicine allows consumers to use their smartphones or tablets to consult with a health care provider remotely and to get treatment and advice. All you have to do is to google telemedicine and you will find many providers offering you telemedicine services. The various companies offering this service promise 24/7 access to board-certified doctors and the ability and willingness to treat a wide range of health problems. You will even find services being offered to doctors so that they can take care of patients over the internet.
Human nature being what it is, mistakes in telemedicine are inevitable. Some of those mistakes may rise to the level of medical malpractice. The question is whether the use of telemedicine increases the amount of malpractice or not. The answer is not yet clear and is certainly subject to change as this field of medicine evolves but so far it does not appear to increase the amount of malpractice.
A study recently reported in JAMA, the medical journal of the American Medical Association, looked at malpractice claims arising out of telemedicine and found that in the 551 malpractice claims they reviewed, none of them involved telemedicine. The authors did not conclude that no one involved in telemedicine was malpracticing. Instead, they offered a number of possible explanations why there were no telemedicine cases in the ones they reviewed.
The first possibility is that there were claims that were not available to the authors. The authors reviewed publicly available records of state and federal lawsuits that reached final resolution during a one month period in 2018. Claims that were made to the provider and settled directly without litigation would not have been in the database. Claims that did not reach a resolution would not be in the database. Some states have pre-litigation procedures that screen malpractice cases before they are filed in court. Cases that went before such screening panels would not make their way into the database, if they were resolved at the screening stage. The time studied may not have been long enough to capture telemedicine malpractice.
A second explanation is that consumers who were the victims of telemedicine malpractice just decided not to take any action. This is in keeping with research that finds most malpractice victims do not make claims. Consumers may have low expectations for telemedicine and figure some level of mistake is acceptable.
Another explanation is that consumers are not taking serious problems to telemedicine providers. As I have remarked in the past, it is usually only serious injuries that become the subject of medical malpractice lawsuits. If consumers with serious problems are avoiding telemedicine, the likelihood of serious and permanent injury due to telemedicine goes down significantly.
Lastly, many telemedicine providers may be appropriately sending patients with significant problems or problems that do not respond promptly on to emergency departments or face-to-face visits with live doctors. This may serve to reduce malpractice exposure for the telemedicine providers.
Telemedicine is growing. As we become more and more accustomed to conducting our lives on line, it will only continue to grow. There will be mistakes and some of them will almost certainly result in serious and permanent injuries. As always be a careful and informed consumer. Don’t take serious or potentially serious problems to a telemedicine provider and you will be less likely to end up with a serious injury.