Once dismissed as a deficient approach to providing health care, telemedicine–when patients meet with experts in another city or even in another state via video conference–is proving to be a valuable tool in closing access gaps for some of the most isolated Americans. Just 10% of doctors practice in rural regions, but one-quarter of U.S. residents lives outside cities, limiting their ability to find good doctors and adequate care.
This spring, Intermountain Healthcare, a Salt Lake City–based nonprofit health system, launched $49 digital appointments for people in rural areas in Utah and Idaho. And in 2015, UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest insurer, started covering digital appointments in the way that it does for in-person visits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, notorious for its long hospital wait times, is also onboard. The agency is spending $1 billion a year on digital health services, and in 2015, the VA treated 700,000 veterans this way–nearly half of them in rural areas. Meanwhile, the Miami VA system, which serves 175,000 veterans, recently reported that doctors were able to significantly lower blood pressure in 100 veterans living in underserved areas by using telemedicine appointments alone.
Now experts estimate that by 2019, there will be 124 million digital doctor’s appointments per year in the U.S. The future–of medicine, at least–may actually be televised.
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.