Making Telehealth Work in the Clinic

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February 21st, 2012
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In a previous blog post for Popper and Co, I discussed how telehealth can be a life-saving tool in rural and urban settings. As devices get more versatile and affordable, we will start seeing additional efficiencies in health care delivery. Moreover, patients will (if they aren’t already) start demanding it. But does telehealth work in every situation? And how should telehealth systems developers adapt to an individual practice’s needs?

The Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research found that while enthusiasm for telehealth was high among patients and (some) caregivers, not every clinic could perceive a benefit. It is very easy, for example, to lose the advantages of this technology without first doing some preliminary research on your particular center and patients. Telehealth must be needs-driven, filling gaps in health services that are not effectively met.

In some cases, demand for telehealth may not be very high. If patients can find care at other facilities or may be reluctant to seek care for certain diseases, then telehealth may not be helpful. Similarly, if practitioners are reluctant to use telehealth tools, this reluctance may place such a system in jeopardy.

Electronic health record (EHR) integration can be one obstacle to telehealth (at least among practitioners). Aside from data security and confidentiality issues, practitioners perceive converting records to electronic format as a burden. However, conversion is becoming easier, and improvements in remote devices are allowing us to integrate many records and data of patient vital statistics into the system, including blood pressure, weight, oxygen saturation, etc.  If developed correctly, EHR adoption, remote monitoring, and health information exchange (HIE) systems can be complementary to telehealth and improve efficiencies in provision of care, improve health outcomes, and reduce costs.

Reimbursement is another issue. A project conducted by our ophthalmology division screened patients with diabetes who were at risk for retinopathy. An eye specialist looked at retinal images with a camera that didn’t require eye drops (therefore, a highly skilled caregiver wasn’t needed at the patient’s location). Two hundred patients were scanned, and approximately 40 percent of them needed referrals. Of those referrals, 5 percent were in danger of going blind without immediate treatment. Here, telehealth provided better access, improved patient health, and reduced costs of care. Yet Medicare would not cover these types of diagnostic image interpretations (called “Store and Forward”) and related referral services, because it only covers that type of Store and Forward remote services in Alaska and Hawaii. On an optimistic note: Coverage requirements can change (in fact, Medicare has already changed coverage rules for some services)!

Other obstacles to telehealth success include:

  • Not thinking about sustainability. Your program may have started out with a grant, but it needs to continue operating after the grant expires. Controlling technology costs is key, as is finding out which technology is most appropriate.
  • What’s the best technology? It’s always changing, making it hard to know where to turn. And often, the latest tool isn’t the best solution for a specific practice or facility. At the Center, we are always helping end-users develop the right technology mix. Often, the right mix may have to be invented.
  • Telehealth may not immediately fit into a practice’s workflow. If you only have one patient using your conferencing facility, that’s a problem. Reasonable volume is key to providing adequate return on investment, as is making telehealth systems scalable to incorporate other health services. You’ll need to develop a business operating plan stating how telehealth encounters will be scheduled, how to document each encounter, what you need to build and design, how many staff you need, and what your upfront and operating costs are.
  • Lack of data. Make sure you document your encounters, and analyze whether your programs are successful. How many more patients did you see? What were the outcomes? What’s the impact on costs? This data also is crucial for systems developers to create the right solutions for telehealth.

Telehealth and information technologies are needed for healthcare reform in this country. It’s going to be an interesting time, getting people connected to care. But it’s the way we do it that’s going to make the biggest difference.

Do you work for a technology company that aims to make a difference in how telehealth is practiced? Are you a health care provider who believes telehealth can make a significant impact to your practice? What, if any, are its limitations? Please tell us what you think.

About the Author: Dr. Alverson is Professor Emeritus and Regents’ Professor at the University of New Mexico where he is the Medical Director of the Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research involved in the planning, implementation, research and evaluation of Telemedicine systems for New Mexico, nationally and internationally. He is also IT Medical Director of LCF Research, assisting in their efforts to address the development and meaningful use of health information exchange, adoption of electronic health records, and integration with telemedicine. He is Immediate Past President of the American Telemedicine Association and involved in several collaborative international Telehealth projects to advance Telehealth and HIT globally.

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