Leveraging Telehealth to Bring Volunteer Physicians Into Underserved Communities

Published in: Telemedicine and e-Health, Vol. 23, No. 6, June 2017

Posted on RAND.org on March 16, 2017

by Lori Uscher-Pines, Robert S. Rudin, Ateev Mehrotra

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Many disadvantaged communities lack sufficient numbers of local primary care and specialty physicians. Yet tens of thousands of physicians, in particular those who are retired or semiretired, desire meaningful volunteer opportunities. Multiple programs have begun to use telehealth to bridge the gap between volunteer physicians and underserved patients. In this brief, we describe programs that are using this model and discuss the promise and pitfalls. Physician volunteers in these programs report that the work can be fulfilling and exciting, a cutting-edge yet convenient way to remain engaged and contribute. Given the projected shortfall of physicians in the United States, recruiting retired and semiretired physicians to provide care through telehealth increases the total supply of active physicians and the capacity of the existing workforce. However, programs typically use volunteers in a limited capacity because of uncertainty about the level and duration of commitment. Acknowledging this reality, most programs only use volunteer physicians for curbside consults rather than fully integrating them into longitudinal patient care. The part-time availability of volunteers may also be difficult to incorporate into the workflow of busy safety net clinics. As more physicians volunteer in a growing number of telehealth programs, the dual benefits of enriching the professional lives of volunteers and improving care for underserved communities will make further development of these programs worthwhile.

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