You have a fever. Your stomach hurts. You have a cough and a runny nose. And to top it all off, your primary care doctor’s office is closed. What are you supposed to do? The answer is simple – telemedicine.

But, what is telemedicine?  The American Telemedicine Association (the “ATA”) defines telemedicine as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status” and it “includes a growing variety of applications and services using two-way video, email, smart phones, wireless tools and other forms of telecommunications technology.” In other words, telemedicine provides an avenue for patients to communicate with a doctor remotely.

Telemedicine is becoming more prevalent in the United States and is rapidly expanding in many areas of the healthcare industry. According to the ATA, telemedicine “is now becoming integrated into the ongoing operations of hospitals, specialty departments, home health agencies, privacy physician offices as well as consumer’s homes and workplaces.”

Companies are beginning to provide pathways for employees to access telemedicine services. In addition, hospitals and communities are exploring the possibilities of telemedicine. Bon Secours Health System (“Bon Secours”) is one such example. Bon Secours is using telemedicine to improve response times for stroke patients. Encountering patient complications due to lengthy response times from neurologists, Bon Secours implemented the use of telemedicine in its emergency rooms. By contracting with a telemedicine firm, neurologists could remotely monitor stroke patients via video cameras and electronically transmitted data, and Bon Secours was able to improve response times dramatically. Read more about Bon Secours’s use of telemedicine here.

Another example of the application of telemedicine is taking place in Mississippi. Recently, Mississippi announced what it calls the Diabetes Telehealth Network. This network is intended to help Mississippi’s diabetic population by giving them access to telemedicine. Participants in the program will check glucose levels, weight, and blood pressure daily, and their results be monitored remotely by a medical team. Read more about Mississippi’s use of telemedicine here.

Even tech giant Google is jumping into the telemedicine waters. Near the end of 2013, Google launched “Helpouts,” which allows users to connect with practitioners in a given field via live video either for free or for a certain fee for a set amount of time. Though not solely aimed at the medical field (for example, a user can take music lessons or exercise classes through Google Helpouts), there are a number of health care professionals listed in the “Health” category. Users can consult with a psychotherapist, have a radiologist look over imaging results with them or discuss chronic muscle pain with a physical therapist, among other services. Find out more about Google Helpouts here.

The practice of telemedicine can potentially raise a variety of legal issues, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • State licensure laws;
  • Reimbursement policies;
  • Malpractice liability;
  • Fraud and abuse laws and regulations; and
  • Corporate practice of medicine laws.

Therefore, before setting up a telemedicine practice or entering into a contract with a telemedicine company, practitioners should consult with an experienced health law attorney.

For more information about telemedicine, you can visit the American Telemedicine Association here.