Apple and Google will undoubtedly grow a lot by 2020, but nothing like the pace forecast for telehealth. The American Medical Association predicts that the telehealth market will expand from about $1 billion next year to $6 billion by 2020.
This astonishing growth is being fueled by a number of converging trends. Because of the expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act, millions more patients are needing treatment – and a significant number of them live in either remote or underserved areas where MDs (particularly specialists) are in short supply. Meanwhile, the use of telehealth for chronic disease management is going through the roof. According to IHS Technology, the number of people being remotely monitored for congestive heart failure in the U.S. will increase 68 percent to 578,000 cases in the next year alone – and remote monitoring of diabetes patients will rise about 73 percent to 236,000 cases.
Many health systems are already starting virtual health departments, like the Virtual Urgent Care recently introduced by CHI Franciscan Health in the Tacoma, Washington area. The program enables area residents – not just existing patients – to receive care 24/7 via phone or video chat on smartphones, tablets and PCs.
Franciscan’s Virtual Urgent Care program is already receiving rave reviews from community members. In fact, it’s achieving a 96 percent satisfaction score from patients – a higher rating than many brick-and-mortar facilities get. There have been unexpected benefits, too. Since the program began, the number of pages to on-call doctors has decreased by 50 percent.
When describing the pace of growth in telehealth, you almost need terms like “warp speed” and “turbo-charge.” Get set for the most exciting – and fastest moving – chapter in telehealth history.
Telehealth Goes Turbo
For decades, TV ads have been promoting the “next generation” of products, whether it’s a soft drink or smartphone or laundry detergent. The phrase has been so overused that we’re wary of it.
But now there’s a “next generation” announcement that’s the real deal: the Next Generation ACOs (Accountable Care Organization) unveiled last month by CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). There’s much to applaud about this announcement because it offers many things that are indeed “new and improved” – especially when it comes to telehealth.
A Next Generation ACO must have at least 10,000 aligned members – or 7,500 if it’s in a rural area. To qualify for next-gen status, an organization must provide access to both telehealth services and home visits. The new model also has more sensible financial metrics and goals than the preceding Pioneer ACO model.
Next Generation ACOs are now allowed to cover and reimburse for telehealth services just like Medicare Advantage plans do today. The new model lifts the longstanding requirement that beneficiaries must live in a rural community. That’s great news for the 80 percent of Medicare beneficiaries who live in large metropolitan areas.
It didn’t take long for telehealth advocacy groups to sing the praises of the new ACO structure. “This is an important change in CMS policy and attitude,” said Jonathan Linkous, chairman of the American Telemedicine Association. “We hope it will encourage CMS and Congress to further open up all value-based payment plans to telehealth.”
His comments were echoed by leaders of the Alliance for Connected Care. “This policy is a critical step forward in expanding the use of telehealth services in Medicare, which will allow for greater care coordination and improved quality of care,” said Alliance chairman Joe Peterson, M.D. “It represents a major victory for patients and the broader telehealth community, which has been gathering evidence of telehealth’s benefits for decades.”
For years, many telehealth proponents have been patiently waiting for the CMS to take this long overdue step. Now it’s time to pinch ourselves because it’s not a dream any more. The Next Generation ACO model will help bring telehealth services to nearly 40 million Americans who previously didn’t qualify. It’s a bold innovation that truly lives up to its name.
The ATA’s Home Telehealth special interest group was launched 16 years ago – and the progress made in that field has been spectacular.
Telehealth was originally envisioned as a way for rural patients to get access to specialists, but now it’s widely used in many other ways:
Remote patient monitoring has really come of age. For example, the University of Arizona health system uses telehealth technology to provide at-home monitoring of prospective heart transplant patients who are waiting for a donor match.
Remote medication management helps ensure that patients adhere to the appropriate dosages and schedules. Research shows that medication non-adherence is a factor in more than half of hospital readmissions – and nearly twenty-five percent of all nursing home admissions.
Telehealth for care transitions reduces errors as patients move to different care settings: hospital, skilled nursing facility, home care, etc.
The bottom line is that thousands of patients are getting expert care without having to physically visit a specialist or PCP. As they grow comfortable with the benefits of at-home monitoring, they’re much more receptive to acute care consultations when the need arises.
The laws governing home health vary widely from state to state, and that’s why there are efforts underway to create standards and protocols for remote home care.
Without telehealth, most communities will fall short of their population health management goals. Patients with multiple chronic conditions need ongoing education and observation where they matter most: in their own homes.
In recent years, there have been more articles written about population health management than about the entire Kardashian clan.
The first version of population health management had a lot of good intentions but few measurable results. Now comes the hard part: turning mission statements into successful programs. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that telehealth is an essential ingredient for success.
In a recent article in Executive Insight, Dr. Yulun Wang noted that one of the six pillars in the AHA’s population health roadmap is “seamless care across all settings,” which is practically a Webster’s definition of telehealth. If the population you’re managing happens to be Bear River, Wyoming (population: 521), there are probably not enough locally based primary care physicians, much less specialists, to handle the job. An enterprise telehealth platform is the force multiplier that can solve the problem, while also improving quality and lowering costs.
Dr. Wang’s article also made it clear that many telehealth solutions fall far short of being enterprise platforms, which need to provide:
- Scope to accommodate sub-acute services (clinics, SNFs) in addition to high-acuity service lines like ICU, neurology, etc.
- Scalability to make it easy and cost effective to add new service lines and organizations
- Ease of use in capturing and viewing clinical data across a wide range of environments and applications
- High quality and reliability because high-acuity cases often involve life-or-death decisions
- Access controls to safeguard data integrity across multiple time zones
- Superior analytics and reporting, both historical and real-time
Any organization that’s serious about population health management must also be willing to implement – or be affiliated with – an enterprise telehealth platform that meets these criteria.
Most health systems grow through mergers and acquisitions, which is a costly and complex process. Merging the existing operations and cultures of healthcare organizations can be an overwhelming task.
Mayo Clinic thinks there’s a smarter way: reaching millions of new patients through technology. In just four years, the Mayo Clinic Care Network (MCCN) has grown to include dozens of affiliated facilities in 18 states, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Bear in mind that Mayo doesn’t own any of these partner organizations. It’s a relationship that’s based primarily on information sharing – and telemedicine plays an important role.
A great example is the Altru Health System in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Neurologists there conduct frequent e-consultations with Mayo specialists. This allows many more patients to be treated close to home, without requiring a trip to Mayo’s headquarters in Rochester, Minnesota.
Last year, MCCN reached seven million patients, which means that Mayo’s clinical footprint has increased threefold to about 63 million people. Mayo CEO Dr. John Noseworthy has set an organizational goal for that number to reach 200 million people by 2020. That’s nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.
Mayo isn’t alone when it comes to adopting this “growth through technology” approach. The new Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Alliance has found a pioneering partner in the Hartford Healthcare system in central Connecticut. Just like the Mayo network, the Sloan-Kettering alliance will allow cancer patients to get expert care without having to go to New York City for weeks or months of treatment.
Mayo and Sloan-Kettering are two of the biggest “brands” in healthcare. By demonstrating telemedicine’s many clinical and financial benefits, they’re setting the stage for similar partnerships in the near future.
For decades, the entry point in healthcare was the primary care physician’s office. That’s changing rapidly as retailers like Walgreens and Walmart ramp up their efforts. The first wave of retail medicine has been described as a “nurse practitioner in a closet.” But in 2015, we’ll be seeing many retail locations that offer everything a traditional PCP does…and often a whole lot more.
This trend is great news for telehealth providers. Most retail medicine operations are just barely beginning to make a profit. They can become more successful by partnering with telehealth companies that don’t have a comparable investment in brick-and-mortar offices and can leverage scalable, cloud-based technologies.
For example, if nurse practitioners at a retail site wants a quick second opinion, they can get one via telehealth without having to send the patient to a nearby primary care doctor. That keeps more money in the system, both for the retail provider and the telehealth partner.
The rapid growth in both retail medicine and telemedicine is fueled by patients’ desire for greater convenience and faster access to care. A recent Advisory Board story highlighted some of the reasons why Americans have so quickly warmed to retail medicine:
Easy online scheduling – The appointment portals at places like CVS and Walgreens are simple to use – and provide far greater convenience than what most urgent care clinics and EDs currently offer.
Extended hours – Unlike most PCPs, the caregivers at retail clinics work evenings and weekends.
Monitoring chronic conditions – Retail clinics are already adept at helping patients manage and monitor ongoing health problems like diabetes and hypertension.
Deep pockets for clinic upgrades – Retail giants have far more cash than your local PCP for things like the newest medical devices and EMR enhancements.
This will be the year when the synergy between retail medicine and telehealth becomes mutually profitable. The public has made it very clear: give us greater access and more convenience beyond the 9-to-5 limitations of traditional medicine.
The legendary rock group The Who once had a song entitled, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That should be the theme song of the thousands of healthcare organizations that paid too much and waited too long for EHR systems that haven’t produced the promised savings and interoperability.
In a recent Black Book Market Research report, 94% of hospitals that are struggling financially say that it’s due to botched or delayed IT projects. And 75% of the CFOs surveyed say that they can’t afford revenue cycle management tools because they overspent on EHRs.
This means that struggling hospitals are likely to fall further behind their well-off competitors who do have the funds to invest in a variety of new projects.
Bear in mind that this was a massive research project that polled more than 2,300 hospital CFOs and CIOs. The report provides ample evidence that the fastest way to become a “have not” hospital is to embark on a poorly executed EHR implementation.
Fortunately, hospital leaders don’t have to repeat the past. There’s now a golden opportunity to “get it right” when implementing telemedicine by avoiding all the potholes and problems that have plagued EHRs so far.
When hospitals and health systems make wise telemedicine decisions, they can achieve things that EHRs promised but didn’t deliver: interoperability, ease of use, and timely implementation.
The painful lessons learned from EHR projects will help more healthcare organizations choose the right telemedicine partner – and get things right from the very start.
When the prestigious Cleveland Clinic unveils its “Top 10 Innovations” for the coming year, it’s like thumbing through a holiday catalog from Neiman Marcus. All those snazzy new products and technologies are bound to be on many hospitals’ wish list for 2015.
Some of the items on the Cleveland Clinic list sound like something you might one day order from SkyMall, including wireless pacemakers and totally pain-free diabetes blood tests. There are some that have instant commercial appeal (cholesterol-lowering injectables for people who can’t tolerate statins). And the #2 innovation on the list is noble and world-changing: a dengue fever vaccine.
But the innovation that ranks #1 (drum roll, please) is the mobile stroke unit – high-tech ambulances that use telemedicine to bring the ED directly to the patient on the scene.
That’s quite an honor when you consider that The Cleveland Clinic is virtually synonymous with “innovation” – and the list was created by more than 100 of its most celebrated physicians, scientists and visionaries. Reaching the top spot on this list is like winning a Nobel Prize and Oscar on the same night.
This proves that telemedicine is no longer an outlier in the U.S. healthcare system. It’s something that’s being touted as the top innovation for next year, outpacing new treatments for heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis.
It’s a real achievement to make this select list…and even sweeter when you rank #1!
One of the main reasons why Ebola has been halted in the U.S. is that we’ve got the technology to help prevent its spread. For example, the New York physician who came down with Ebola checked his temperature daily and reported it (via cell phone) to other doctors. When his temperature hit 100, he knew it was time for quarantine.
So here’s the question: does West Africa have the cell network and 4G Internet reliability to effectively use technology to combat Ebola? The answer is a resounding yes.
Cell signals in West Africa are so reliable that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently donated 10,000 cell phones to West African authorities and physicians combating Ebola.
In 2011, French Telecom and other providers began installing the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable system. More than 10,000 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable now connects West Africa with Europe.
West Africa fiber-optics
So there’s already an infrastture to support sophisticated telemedicine networks throughout West Africa. Everything needed to use an RP-Express robot is already in place.
In our view, there’s nothing to prevent telemedicine from playing a much larger role in the effort to stop the spread of Ebola.
Polls consistently show that “access” to healthcare is a high priority for most patients. But a patient’s definition of access is a far cry from how providers see it.
For most hospitals and health systems, the Patient Access department is a large and complex operation. In many cases, it includes the call center employees who schedule appointments and all the folks who handle patient registration, insurance verification and payments.
In short, this team preps the patient to see the doctor, but do their efforts really ensure that you’re getting access to the right care at the right time at the right place? What happens if the specialist you’re scheduled to see is sick or stuck in traffic?
Most providers approach “patient access” either as a workflow issue or an opportunity to get upfront payment for services. They may have a check-in kiosk to expedite the process, but that’s about as far as their technology goes.
So here’s a novel idea: why not take greater advantage of telemedicine technology?
Let’s say that you visit your ophthalmologist, who’s baffled by a retinal condition she’s never seen before. It would clearly be advantageous to have “access” to a retina specialist who is familiar with it so you could get the right treatment without delay.
That’s the sort of improved access that health reform is aiming for – not just a faster way to get an appointment.
As technology-enabled consultations become more commonplace, we may not need an on-site army of registration and billing people anymore. Telemedicine is redefining “access” to mean something very simple: putting the patient in touch with the best provider, whenever and wherever needed.