Objective: To evaluate the costs and benefits of a prison telemedicine program for the institutions involved and to assess early provider satisfaction.
Materials and methods: A survey of primary care and consulting providers from four prisons and an academic tertiary care facility in Iowa was conducted during the first year of telemedicine service linked with the state's correctional facilities, from March, 1997 to February, 1998. Data were evaluated from 247 completed telemedicine encounters. Cost estimates were made for (1) 1997 cost data for the 4,396 Iowa prisoners who were transported to The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) for their health care, and (2) the equipment, circuitry, and personnel costs necessary on both ends of the network to provide comparable telemedicine service to remote patients and providers. A formula for estimating the cost of implementing a telemedicine service is presented. It includes a projection for determining at what point the cost of the telemedicine visit approaches the average cost of an on-site visit (breakeven point). There was also a brief survey administered to presenting and consulting physicians to determine their overall satisfaction with the telemedicine system for diagnosis, treatment planning, and follow-up.
Results: The average cost to the prisons for an on-site inmate visit to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) was $115 during our study period, from March 1997 to February 1998. Using a formula that specifies a number of fixed and variable costs for implementing telemedicine, we were able to determine that the breakeven point for Iowa's correctional facilities would require 275 teleconsultations per year, per site (total of 1,575 consultations a year). Given the higher equipment investment at the UIHC hub, the breakeven point would be around 2,000 teleconsultations annually. Cost studies did not include medical care, which is assumed to be relatively comparable for both on-site and telemedicine interactions. Overall, referring physicians expressed a higher rate of satisfaction with telemedicine than specialists (4.19 to 3.45, respectively, on a scale of 1 to 5 - 5 representing the highest ranking). Both consulting and referring physicians ranked the quality of transmission the highest among all questions regarding satisfaction with the telemedicine system.
Conclusions: No one should anticipate instantaneous cost-effectiveness with telemedicine. However, with careful planning, implementing a telemedicine program can be "cost-acceptable" initially. Telemedicine ultimately becomes cost-effective as the volume of teleconsults increases.