Why has teledermatology never taken off? Technically, we’ve been able to do it for years, yet most providers have been unwilling. This year, however, I expect we will cross the tipping point. The convergence of digital health records, expanding reimbursement, and consumerization of health care have led to a surge in demand, and now a supply of teledermatology services.

Much of this growth is from direct-to-consumer teledermatology providers. These are telehealth services marketed to patients where they access a dermatologist directly, paying out of pocket or with insurance. One such company is the aptly named Direct Dermatology.

Founded in 2009, it is an online dermatology clinic that provides 24/7 access to board-certified dermatologists. It is experiencing rapid growth and is currently looking to expand its network of dermatologists. For this month’s column, I share an interview with Dr. David Wong, cofounder of Direct Dermatology and clinical associate professor at Stanford (Calif.) University. I have no financial or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

Initially, telehealth was designed to serve rural communities with limited access to health care. Today it is used more widely. Would you share some examples of its use?

Dr. Wong: Much of the initial telehealth efforts and success have been in rural communities because telehealth solves a major problem of access to medical care in underserved areas. But it can be extremely valuable in all geographic areas, not just rural communities. Access is a problem even in urban areas, where wait time for a dermatologist appointment averages over 1 month. Telehealth has the potential to not only improve access, but also to improve quality of care and deliver care more efficiently for the patient, provider, and overall health system.

Teledermatology is being used by several employers as a benefit to their employees to provide convenient and timely access to dermatologists and decrease employee time away from work. There are several direct-to-consumer online teledermatology services that are being used by patients in all communities, especially urban communities.

The fact is that the majority of dermatology cases are seen by primary care physicians. If teledermatology can provide rapid, efficient, and reliable access to experienced dermatologists, the quality of dermatology care in the country will improve.

Please share some of the tangible benefits of teledermatology, such as triage, reducing the disparity in access to dermatologists, employer benefits, etc.

Another factor is that dermatology problems don’t occur only during business hours – we are seeing a growing number of cases submitted from our own patients over the weekend or in the evening. The ability to evaluate acutely developing skin problems within a few hours, such as rashes in children, can alleviate a lot of anxiety and avoid unnecessary emergency room costs.

Teledermatology also is beneficial to dermatologists in allowing us to provide care from anywhere on a flexible schedule. We don’t have to go into the office to “see” our patients. Both patient and provider satisfaction in our office’s teledermatology practice is very high.

Reimbursement has been a major drawback with telehealth. For example, Medicare reimburses for telemedicine services in some states, but others have restrictions. There are also more restrictions on the “store-and-forward” format than for the live, interactive format. Would you shed some light on this?

Dr. Wong: Yes, reimbursement has been a barrier to telehealth. But that is changing. A total of 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed parity laws for private insurance coverage of telemedicine, and 10 states have pending legislation. But whether telemedicine is actually covered by each health plan varies even in those 22 states. And coverage can vary depending on whether it is store-and-forward or live interactive teledermatology. Medicare still only covers store-and-forward teledermatology under a federal demonstration program in the states of Hawaii and Alaska. We believe that the ultimate driving force – delivery of high-quality and cost-effective specialty care to more patients – will continue to support the current trend in expanded telemedicine coverage.

What type of liability do dermatologists face when using telehealth?

Dr. Wong: The good news is that there have not been any malpractice lawsuits related to teledermatology to date. But physicians performing telehealth services should ensure that their malpractice liability insurance policy covers the exact form of telehealth that will be provided (just as it covers any other medical services that physicians provide), prior to starting to provide those services. Most medical malpractice insurance does not automatically cover telehealth services. In addition, be sure to understand state regulations about licensing, informed consent, and online prescribing.

How do patients feel about teledermatology? Do you notice any differences regarding patients’ gender and age?

Dr. Wong: I’m going to specifically speak about “store-and-forward” teledermatology, which is the predominant mode of teledermatology being used today. Store-and-forward teledermatology is an asynchronous mode where pictures of the skin problem and medical history are sent to the dermatologist. In general, patients love teledermatology. It is convenient; they don’t have to take time off from their busy schedules. They don’t have to wait for the next available appointment in my clinic. They can get answers and are placed on treatment that same day. In our practice, there is an opportunity for rapid, secure communication exchange with the dermatologist during the consultation as well. Of course, there are skeptics who wonder whether dermatologists can really make an accurate diagnosis with a picture. But once patients experience the service, they are typically very satisfied with what our dermatologists can do and with the quality of care. Anecdotally, we’re seeing a nearly equal distribution of male and female consumers seeking care through teledermatology. Individuals in their 30s comprise the largest age segment, but we see patients from all age groups, even pediatric cases sent by parents.

What do you say to physicians who are concerned that teledermatology will eventually replace in-person visits and erode the doctor-patient relationship?

Dr. Wong: Teledermatology will never completely replace in-person visits. But it will become an important component of our practices. Teledermatology can actually improve the doctor-patient relationship because it allows for increased connectivity between doctor and patient. It is important for dermatologists to define how teledermatology enhances our existing practices by improving the quality of care and actually strengthening our relationship with our patients.

What advice do you have for dermatologists who are considering implementing teledermatology in their practice?

Dr. Wong: Speak with other dermatologists who have had experience with providing teledermatology services in their practices. Learn from their best practices. In addition to adopting a new technology, think through how it incorporates into your clinic operations. And pay attention to regulatory and legal compliance in an environment where there is constant change.

What are your predictions for the future of teledermatology?

Dr. Wong: The future of teledermatology is exciting. It is now an important tool to provide even better care to our patients. The technology for high-quality photography from mobile devices has rapidly advanced, and in most cases, when done properly, the resulting images are as good as – or better than – what you can see with the unaided human eye in an exam room. Because of the way our field has thoughtfully implemented teledermatology alongside traditional dermatology, teledermatology will very soon become a standard of care. The term “teledermatology” will no longer be used because it will simply be a standard part of dermatology practice.

For more information and contacts, please visit DirectDermatology.com.