Telehealth Saves Lives, Reduces Costs: A Physician’s Perspective
February 9th, 2012
Posted by Dale C. Alverson, M.D. (guest blogger)
Wireless technology is evolving in positive ways. It’s now more affordable, more accessible (thanks to broadband capacity), and more portable (via devices such as tablets and smartphones). And it is no exaggeration to say that this technology has made a life-saving difference for many patients who otherwise would not get care.
At the Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research at the University of New Mexico, we studied the ability of telehealth tools (e.g., video connections, conference calling, electronic record sharing) to improve access and outcomes of rural New Mexicans suffering from a variety of health problems. In that role, we have been the incubator for several applications of telehealth designed to integrate the technologies that address important healthcare needs and gaps in access. One example was hepatitis C. While this disease is curable, multiple treatments are required and patients must be monitored for adverse effects. Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) was initially incubated in our Center under the leadership of Dr. Sanjeev Arora. That project was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrating how the program provided community healthcare providers with the expertise and tools they needed to treat hundreds, if not thousands, of people who previously were receiving no care for hepatitis C. In addition, outcomes of these remote patients were as good as outcomes of patients who traveled (often hundreds of miles) to the University’s medical center in Albuquerque.
This model was successful enough that it is now being expanded into other treatment areas, such as cardiology, rheumatology, and even adolescent psychiatry. For example, adolescents on Indian reservations, who have very high rates of suicide, are benefitting from counseling. Once the patient and practitioner are familiar with the technology, online counseling sessions are very similar to face-to-face encounters.
In addition to improving patient outcomes and access to care, telehealth can reduce costs in the clinic. At the University of New Mexico, our head of neurosurgery worked with The Center to set up a system where surgeons could view patient CT scans through a secure web portal. Because of this system, 44 percent of risky patient transfers were avoided, simply by looking at the scans remotely before surgery.
In rural New Mexico, the access improvements of telehealth appear obvious (though telehealth doesn’t work in every situation, an issue I’ll discuss in a future post). But the technology can also work in urban areas, bypassing transportation and traffic congestion problems by bringing virtual care to the patient. This is health care where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
One effect of health care reform that isn’t making headlines is that increased demand for services will be placed on a limited resource: existing health care providers. But telehealth systems will help meet this new demand by providing services to nearly everyone. For example, Dr. Arora, one of the few liver specialists in New Mexico, stated as we helped start his project that he couldn’t personally treat the 30,000 New Mexicans with hepatitis C at that time. But with the help of specialists—such as Dr. Arora and his team—at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse, community practitioners can readily access experts.
What do you see as the limitations of telehealth? Is rural New Mexico a truly unique niche for this technology? In my next post, we’ll discuss the importance of setting up an operating plan, and more cost-cutting benefits of telehealth. In the mean time, if you have any questions about my telehealth study or work, please post them here.
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