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Eye Docs Trying to Kill Tele-Medicine Using Legislative Hit Squads

(Veronique de Rugy) – Telemedicine can benefit a variety of medical fields, especially when a visit to the doctor for answers to routine questions often costs a pretty penny. For instance, most modern phones are capable of taking high-quality images of a questionable mole or rash, which can then be transmitted by an app for review by a dermatologist. Instead of waiting weeks for an appointment, the patient can get an answer faster and at a lower cost.

Like the other disruptive services, telemedicine is running into opposition from politically connected competitors.

Consider eye care, where telemedicine holds great potential. Several startups are trying to make it easier for patients to receive new prescriptions by offering exams through smartphones, which are as good as traditional exams. The results are reviewed by a licensed optometrist, who then provides the prescription.

Optometrists, who make a lot of money by prescribing and selling specific brand-name versions of contact lenses and eye care products, are fighting to prevent this use of telemedicine in multiple states.

The California State Board of Optometry used taxpayer dollars to engage in a public relations campaign against one telemedicine startup. Indiana enacted a law last year to prevent the use of online eye exams. Georgia and South Carolina have also enacted bans, and the Virginia Legislature just sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would do the same.

All of this is done not to safeguard patients but to protect older and more expensive business models. This is highly unfortunate.

Telemedicine not only can help reduce health care costs but also has the potential to greatly expand access to care — something politicians claim to care about. Yet many states nevertheless prevent doctors licensed in other states from offering telemedicine services to their residents. This makes it more difficult for poorer citizens living in medically underserved areas to achieve the same access to care that their wealthier neighbors can discover by traveling out of state.

To make medicine great again, politicians need to fix outdated rules that are standing in the way of market innovation, especially when it’s seeking to solve major public policy problems. They must also stop favoring established businesses at the expensive of finding new ways to do things better and more cheaply. Telemedicine is the way of the future, and denying it is to deny the people who need it the most a chance at a happier, healthier and wealthier life.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

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