Telemedicine, or the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients, has grown at a rapid pace in Minnesota, according to a recently published study by the Minnesota Department of Health and University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

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The study found a nearly seven-fold growth in visits, from 11,113 in 2010 to 86,238 visits in 2015.

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For the first-of-its-kind study, Health Department and School of Public Health researchers joined together to analyze the Minnesota All Payer Claims Database for patterns of telemedicine use in Minnesota between 2010 and 2015.

The research did not look into the effectiveness of telemedicine, but it did find a rapid increase in its use.

Though still a very small slice of Minnesota's health care pie - less than 1 percent of patients used telemedicine - the researchers found that telemedicine evolved to serve somewhat different uses for metro-area and Greater Minnesota patients and for those with private or public insurance, such as Medicare, MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, Minnesota's Medicaid program.

Nonmetro patients in Greater Minnesota more commonly used telemedicine for real-time visits initiated by providers and for specialty consultations. Examples include a telemedicine visit with a neurologist to help make decisions in the emergency room for treating a patient with a suspected stroke, or the use of telemedicine to provide psychotherapy and medication management for clinical depression.

The research indicates that telemedicine is emerging as an option to overcome some of the geographical barriers to accessing specialty care in Greater Minnesota, especially for mental health, said Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Commissioner of Health.

"We need more research to ensure quality is being maintained, but this study highlights the importance of seeking innovative ways to provide access to health care in Greater Minnesota, including thinking broadly about funding investments in the health care workforce, as well as technology such as telemedicine equipment and broadband access," Malcolm said

In metropolitan areas, which included the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth, the majority of telemedicine services were online evaluation visits for primary care provided by nurse practitioners to patients with commercial insurance. Such "direct-to-consumer" telemedicine visits provide care for common non-emergency conditions, such as the common cold or strep throat.