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Telemedicine slow to gain traction in workers comp

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DANA POINT, California — There has been a lot of talk about using telemedicine in the workers compensation arena, but little action has been taken to incorporate the practice, according to experts who say the field is ripe for change. 

The use of remote videoconferencing and other technologies to provide care for injured workers was questioned during a panel discussion on occupational health during the California Workers’ Compensation & Risk Conference in Dana Point, California this month.  

The practice has been successful in group health, panelists say, but has been rejected in the past by workers comp providers. Lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of telemedicine was discussed as one possible reason for hesitancy in the workers comp community. 

Dr. Roman Kownacki, Oakland, California-based regional medical director for occupational health with Permanente Medical Group Inc., said comp providers are still trying to see “what works and what doesn’t,” and how to apply what could be an alternative to in-person doctor visits.  

“(I’m) watching where the industry goes,” he said.  

Some workers comp medical providers have been slow to adopt telemedicine because they’re still conducting due diligence, said Keith Newton, president and chief executive officer for Addison, Texas-based Concentra Operating Corp., an occupational health provider. 

“We really started looking at this hard this year,” he said. “We want to ensure that we are on the forefront of that (with the) right technology and patient experience. (Our) anticipated time line is to deliver a (telemedicine) product and pilot beginning of next year.” 

Joe Mallas, president and chief executive office of U.S. HealthWorks, a Valencia, California-based health care provider network, said telemedicine in workers comp is driven by the idea of 24-hour accessibility for injured workers. 

He said that might be the reason workers comp is lagging behind group health when it comes to telemedicine, since workers injured outside of standard business hours may receive emergency or urgent care rather than occupational medical care. 

He mentioned the example of a worker injured at 2 a.m., having to wait until later in the morning to speak with an occupational health provider. Of those types of cases, Mr. Mallas asked: “Do you have a lot of them? No, we have one a year."