The article “Technology Has Finally Caught Up with Telemedicine” was authored by Ron Emerson, Global Director of Healthcare, Polycom www.polycom.com
Recent attention given to telemedicine has projected the practice more as novel innovation designed as a panacea to cure all of the industry’s headaches. It’s a fortuitous result of advances in both the tech sector as well as the increased demand for healthcare professionals brought on by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The truth is we’ve been talking about telemedicine since the 1990’s. And while advancements in technology have rightfully brought telemedicine back into the limelight, there’s still so much more we can do.
The University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, Texas is one of the largest telehealth providers in the world, responsible for spearheading the Electronic Health Network. In an attempt to narrow the gap between patients and physicians and provide easy access to care, The University of Texas Medical Branch pioneered its telemedicine program in the late 1990’s. Today, the medical branch has over 150,000 face-to-face patient consultants and interactions a year, and even extends to researchers in Antarctica.
For institutions like the University of Texas Medical Branch, telemedicine isn’t new, but has been a way of life for the better part of 20 years. While not new, today, we’re describing telemedicine as a novelty largely because of solutions advancements and government policies that have positioned telehealth as better suited to address the needs of patients and hospitals than previously thought.
Telemedicine 2.0 – The Future Is Here
A lot has changed since the 90’s: There are now roughly 280 million Internet users in the United States. Broadband speeds have increased to 28.2 mbps for downloads and even mobile broadband speeds are reasonable now at 12.3 mbps. This means telemedicine solutions, practices and applications are far more accessible than 20 years ago. Doctors can now monitor their patients from a distance, and can conduct patient evaluations, monitor for signs of a stroke, and communicate regularly with patients who recently underwent a surgery. Doctors can build a relationship with patients and ensure proper care – even if the patients themselves are never admitted into a healthcare facility. By 2025, primary care will be accessible to all citizens, regardless of distance.
Because more Americans have reliable and fast Internet access at home and on the go, doctors can also work closely with patients and their families on discharge planning efforts, transition of care and care coordination. Take a look at the efforts made by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (telepsychiatry).
Caretakers there implemented a program in 2009 that allows for digital care coordination. As a result, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, as well as other hospitals and communities, have saved $32 million in medical related costs. Additionally, 23,700 consultations have been completed since April 2009, translating to $1,400 saved per episode of care. The savings can affect both the hospitals and the communities they serve.
Another unique take on care coordination can be seen at Saint Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. This institution treats patients who have been victims of domestic violence-related incidents. St. Joseph’s uses videoconferencing solutions to directly and immediately connect patients to domestic violence hearing officers in the local judicial system, resulting in swift legal services such as restraining orders to be handled while the patients are being treated for their injuries.
Inexpensive cost, security and peace of mind are now the realities of telehealth today.
Finally, thanks to the ACA, doctors are now encouraged to move away from the old fee-for-service model, and toward an emphasis on population health. This makes telehealth a very attractive option to doctors working in rural areas. Having more touch points between doctor and patient regardless of location is more critical now than ever before. Plus, for many reasons, I’m fairly certain doctors would prefer not to see a crowded waiting room day after day.
Wellness, Prevention and Recovery
Another trend in the evolution of telehealth is that it is making its way into patients’ hands even when they are not immediately in need of medical attention. Devices like Fitbit and apps for smartphones (and now smart watches) are making telehealth an important part of everyday wellness, prevention and recovery. A key trend in healthcare has been educating doctors and patients to move beyond a single-minded goal of treating sick people, and more toward general wellness. Big data gained from smart devices has been instrumental in focusing doctors and patients more on integrating prevention and wellness into all aspects of people’s lives, both to reduce chronic issues and hospital readmission and to address health practitioner shortages.
Changes in how Americans view technology have led to huge gains for healthcare professionals and communities alike. Hospitals equipped with the appropriate collaboration solutions can support telehealth, telemedicine and education.
Hospitals are transforming themselves into centers of excellence, connecting medical professionals across the world to collaborate and learn as well as connecting with patients outside of the hospital – whether at home, in clinics, in aged care facilities, community centers and in harsh or remote environments.