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Telehealth

Telemedicine is becoming mainstream, observers say

Spurred by healthcare trends and technological advances, telemedicine is growing into a mainstream industry, according to a recent analysis in the New York Times.

About 20 percent of Americans live in places where primary care doctors are scarce, and telehealth technology is, in theory, a solution for providing care at a distance. Thanks to recent improvements in videconferencing equipment and lower prices for satellite links, the theory has become a reality.

“The technology has improved to the point where the experience of both the doctor and patient are close to the same as in-person visits, and in some cases better,” says Dr. Kaveh Safavi, head of global healthcare for Cisco Systems, which is supporting trials of its own high-definition video version of telemedicine in California, Colorado and New Mexico.

The interactive telemedicine business has been growing by almost 10 percent annually, to more than US$500 million in revenue in North America this year, according to Datamonitor, the market research firm. It is part of the US$3.9 billion telemedicine category that includes monitoring devices in homes and hundreds of healthcare applications for smartphones.

Christine Chang, a healthcare technology analyst at Datamonitor’s Ovum unit, says telemedicine will allow doctors to take better care of larger numbers of patients. “Some patients will be seen by teleconferencing, some will send questions by e-mail, others will be monitored” using digitized data on symptoms or indicators like glucose levels, she says.

Eventually, she predicts, “one patient a day might come into a doctor’s office, in person.”

Although telemedicine has been around for years, it is gaining traction as never before. Medicare, Medicaid and other government health programs have been reimbursing doctors and hospitals that provide care remotely to rural and underserved areas. Now a growing number of big insurance companies, like the UnitedHealth Group and several Blue Cross plans, are starting to market interactive video to large employers. The new federal healthcare law provides $1 billion a year to study telemedicine and other innovations.

With the expansion of reimbursement, Americans are on the brink of “a gold rush of new investment in telemedicine,” says Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., managing partner at Vesalius Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Houston. He has worked on telemedicine projects since he helped build medical systems for NASA during his days as an astronaut in the 1990s.

Face-to-face telemedicine technology can be as elaborate as a high-definition video system, like Cisco’s, that can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or it can be as simple as the Webcams available on many laptops.

Dr. Oscar Boultinghouse and two colleagues – Michael J. Davis and Glenn G. Hammack – run NuPhysicia, a start-up company they spun out from the University of Texas in 2007 that specializes in face-to-face telemedicine, connecting doctors and patients by two-way video.

NuPhysicia uses equipment in the middle of that range – standard videoconferencing hookups made by Polycom, a video conferencing company based in Pleasanton, Calif. Analysts say the setup may cost $30,000 to $45,000 at the patient’s end – with a suitcase or cart containing scopes and other special equipment – plus a setup for the doctor that costs far less.

Telemedicine has its skeptics. State regulators at the Texas Medical Board have raised concerns that doctors might miss an opportunity to pick up subtle medical indicators when they cannot touch a patient. And while it does not oppose telemedicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians says patients should keep in contact with a primary physician who can keep tabs on their health needs, whether in the virtual or the real world.

“Telemedicine can improve access to care in remote sites and rural areas,” says Dr. Lori J. Heim, the academy’s president. “But not all visits will take place between a patient and their primary-care doctor.”

Dr. Boultinghouse dismisses such concerns. “In today’s world, the physical exam plays less and less of a role,” he says. “We live in the age of imaging.”

Some oil rigs, for example, have saved $500,000 or more a year, according to NuPhysicia, which has contracts with 19 oil rigs around the world, including one off Iraq. Dr. Boultinghouse says the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may slow or block new drilling in United States waters, driving the rigs to more remote locations and adding to demand for telemedicine.

NuPhysicia also offers video medical services to land-based employers with 500 or more workers at a site. The camera connection is an alternative to an employer’s on-site clinics, typically staffed by a nurse or a physician assistant.

NuPhysicia’s business grew out of work that its founders did for the state of Texas. Mr. Hammack, NuPhysicia’s president, is a former assistant vice president of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where he led development of the state’s pioneering telemedicine program in state prisons from the mid-1990s to 2007. Dr. Davis is a cardiologist.

Working with Dr. Boultinghouse, Dr. Davis and other university doctors conducted more than 600,000 video visits with inmates. Significant improvement was seen in inmates’ health, including measures of blood pressure and cholesterol, according to a 2004 report on the system in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Posted June 3, 2010

 

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