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Measuring the Vital Signs of Health Care Progress at the Connected Health Conference (Part 3 of 3)

Posted on November 17, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The previous segment of this article covered one of the crucial themes in health care today: simplifying technology’s interactions with individuals over health care. This segment finishes my coverage of this year’s Connected Health Conference with two more themes: improved data sharing and blockchains.

Keynote at Connected Health Conference

Keynote at Connected Health Conference

Improved data sharing
The third trend I’m pursuing is interoperability. If data collection is the oxygen that fuels connected health, data sharing is the trachea that brings it where it’s needed. Without interoperability, clinicians cannot aid patients in their homes, analysts cannot derive insights that inform treatments, and transitions to assisted living facilities or other environments will lead to poor care.

But the health care field is notoriously bad at data sharing. The usual explanation is that doctors want to make it hard for competitors to win away their patients. If that’s true, fee-for-value reimbursements will make them even more possessive. After all, under fee-for-value, clinicians are held accountable for patient outcomes over a long period of time. They won’t want to lose control of the patient. I first heard of this danger at a 2012 conference (described in the section titled “Low-hanging fruit signals a new path for cost savings”).

So the trade press routinely and ponderously reports that once again, years have gone by without much progress in data sharing. The US government recognizes that support for interoperability is unsatisfactory, and has recently changed the ONC certification program to focus on it.

Carla Kriwet, CEO of Connected Care and Health Informatics at Philips, was asked in her keynote Fireside Chat to rate the interoperability of health data on a scale from 0 to 10, and chose a measly 3. She declared that “we don’t believe in closed systems at all” and told me in an interview that Philips is committed to creating integrated solutions that work with any and all products. Although Philips devices are legendary in many domains, Kriwet wants customers to pay for outcomes, not devices.

For instance, Philips recently acquired the Wellcentive platform that allows better care in hospitals by adopting population health approaches that look at whole patient populations to find what works. The platform works with a wide range of input sources and is meant to understand patient populations, navigate care and activate patients. Philips also creates dashboards with output driven by artificial intelligence–the Philips IntelliVue Guardian solution with Early Warning Scoring (EWS)–that leverages predictive analytics to present critical information about patient deterioration to nurses and physicians. This lets them intervene quickly before an adverse event occurs, without the need for logging in repeatedly. (This is an example of another trend I cover in this article, the search for simpler interfaces.)

Kriwet also told me that Philips has incorporated the principles of agile programming throughout the company. Sprints of a few weeks develop their products, and “the boundary comes down” between R&D and the sales team.

I also met with Jon Michaeli, EVP of Strategic Partnerships with Medisafe, a company that I covered two years ago. Medisafe is one of a slew of companies that encourage medication adherence. Always intensely based on taking in data and engaging patients in a personalized way, Medisafe has upped the sophistication of their solution, partly by integrating with other technologies. One recent example is its Safety Net, provided by artificial intelligence platform Neura. For instance, if you normally cart your cell phone around with you, but it’s lying quiet from 10:00 PM until 6:00 AM, Safety Net may determine your reason for missing your bedtime dose at 11:00 PM was that you had already fallen asleep. If Safety Net sees recurring patterns of behavior, it will adjust reminder time automatically.

Medisafe also gives users the option of recording the medication adherence through sensors rather than responding to reminders. They can communicate over Bluetooth to a pill bottle cap (“iCap”) that replaces the standard medicine cap and lets the service know when you have opened the bottle. The iCap fits the vast majority of medicine bottles dispensed by U.S. pharmacies and costs only $20 ($40 for a pack of 2), so you can buy several and use them for as long as you’re taking your medicine.

On another level, Mivatek provides some of the low-level scaffolding to connected health by furnishing data from devices to systems developed by the company’s clients. Suppose, for instance, that a company is developing a system that responds to patients who fall. Mivatek can help them take input from a button on the patient’s phone, from a camera, from a fall detector, or anything else to which Mivatek can connect. The user can add a device to his system simply by taking a picture of the bar code with his phone.

Jorge Perdomo, Senior Vice President Corporate Strategy & Development at Mivatek, told me that these devices work with virtually all of the available protocols on the market that have been developed to promote interoperability. In supporting WiFi, Mivatek loads an agent into its system to provide an additional level of security. This prevents device hacking and creates an easy-to-install experience with no setup requirements.

Blockchains
Most famous as a key technological innovation supporting BitCoin, blockchains have a broad application as data stores that record transactions securely. They can be used in health care for granting permissions to data and other contractual matters. The enticement offered by this technology is that no central institution controls or stores the blockchain. One can distribute the responsibility for storage and avoid ceding control to one institution.

Blockchains do, however, suffer from inherent scaling problems by design: they grow linearly as people add transactions, the additions must be done synchronously, and the whole chain must be stored in its entirety. But for a limited set of participants and relatively rate updates (for instance, recording just the granting of permissions to data and not each chunk of data exchanged), the technology holds great promise.

Although I see a limited role for blockchains, the conference gave considerable bandwidth to the concept. In a keynote that was devoted to blockchains, Dr. Samir Damani described how one of his companies, MintHealth, planned to use them to give individuals control over health data that is currently held by clinicians or researchers–and withheld from the individuals themselves.

I have previously covered the importance patient health records, and the open source project spotlighted by that article, HIE of One, now intends to use blockchain in a manner similar to MintHealth. In both projects, the patient owns his own data. MintHealth adds the innovation of offering rewards for patients who share their data with researchers, all delivered through the blockchain. The reward system is quite intriguing, because it would create for the first time a real market for highly valuable patient data, and thus lead to more research use along with fair compensation for the patients. MintHealth’s reward system also fits the connected health vision of promoting healthy behavior on a daily basis, to reduce chronic illness and health care costs.

Conclusion
Although progress toward connected health comes in fits and starts, the Connected Health Conference is still a bright spot in health care each year. For the first time this year, Partners’ Center for Connected Health partnered with another organization, the Personal Connected Health Alliance, and the combination seems to be a positive one. Certain changes were noticeable: for instance, all the breakout sessions were panels, and the keynotes were punctuated by annoying ads. An interesting focus this year was wellness in aging, the topic of the final panel. One surprising difference was the absence of the patient advocates from the Society for Participatory Medicine whom I’m used to meeting each year at this conference, perhaps because they held their own conference the day before.

The Center for Connected Health’s Joseph Kvedar still ran the program team, and the themes were familiar from previous years. This conference has become my touchstone for understanding health IT, and it will continue to be the place to go to track the progress of health care reform from a technological standpoint.

Measuring the Vital Signs of Health Care Progress at the Connected Health Conference (Part 2 of 3)

Posted on November 15, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The first segment of this article introduced the themes of the Connected Health Conference and talked about the importance of validating what new technologies do using trials or studies like traditional medical advances. This segment continues my investigation into another major theme in health care: advanced interfaces.

Speaker from Validic at Connected Health Conference

Speaker from Validic at Connected Health Conference

Advanced interfaces
The compulsory picture of health care we’re accustomed to seeing, whenever we view hospital propaganda or marketing from health care companies, shows a patient in an awkward gown seated on an uncomfortable examination table. A doctor faces him or her full on–not a computer screen in site–exuding concern, wisdom, friendliness, and professionalism.

More and more, however, health sites are replacing this canonical photograph with one of a mobile phone screen speckled with indicators of our vital signs or thumbnail shot of our caregivers. The promise being conveyed is no longer care from a trusted clinician in the office, but instant access to all our information through a medium familiar to almost everyone everywhere–the personal mobile device.

But even touchscreen access to the world of the cloud is beginning to seem fusty. Typing in everything you eat with your thumbs, or even answering daily surveys about your mental state, gets old fast. As Dr. Yechiel Engelhard of TEVA said in his keynote, patients don’t want to put a lot of time into managing their illnesses, nor do doctors want to change their workflows. So I’m fascinated with connected health solutions that take the friction out of data collection and transmission.

One clear trend is the move to voice–or rather, I should say back to voice, because it is the original form of human communication for precise data. The popularity of Amazon Echo, along with Siri and similar interfaces, shows that this technology will hit a fever pitch soon. One research firm found that voice-triggered devices more than doubled in popularity between 2015 and 2016, and that more than half of Americans would like such a device in the home.

I recently covered a health care challenge using Amazon Alexa that demonstrates how the technology can power connected health solutions. Most of the finalists in the challenge were doing the things that the Connected Health Conference talks about incessantly: easy and frequent interactions with patients, analytics to uncover health problems, integration with health care providers, personalization, and so on.

Orbita is another company capitalizing on voice interfaces to deliver a range of connected health solutions, from simple medication reminders to complete care management applications for diabetes. I talked to CEO Bill Rogers, who explained that they provide a platform for integrating with AI engines provided by other services to carry out communication with individuals through whatever technology they have available. Thus, Orbita can talk through Echo, send SMS messages, interact with a fitness device or smart scale, or even deliver a reminder over a plain telephone interface.

One client of Orbita uses it platform to run a voice bot that talks to patients during their discharge process. The bot provides post-discharge care instructions and answers patients’ questions about things like pain management and surgery wound care. The results show that patients are more willing to ask questions of the bot than of a discharge nurse, perhaps because they’re not afraid of wasting someone’s time. Rogers also said services are improving their affective interfaces, which respond to the emotional tone of the patient.

Another trick to avoid complex interfaces is to gather as much data as possible from the patient’s behavior (with her consent, of course) to eliminate totally the need for her to manually enter data, or even press a button. Devices are getting closer to this kind of context-awareness. Following are some of the advances I enjoyed seeing at the Connected Health Conference.

  • PulseOn puts more health data collection into a wrist device than I’ve ever seen. Among the usual applications to fitness, they claim to detect atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea by shining a light on the user’s skin and measuring changes in reflections caused by variations in blood flow.
  • A finger-sized device called Gocap, from Common Sensing, measures insulin use and reports it over wireless connections to clinical care-takers. The device is placed over the needle end of an insulin pen, determines how much was injected by measuring the amount of fluid dispensed after a dose, and transmits care activity to clinicians through a companion app on the user’s smartphone. Thus, without having to enter any information by hand, people with diabetes can keep the clinicians up to date on their treatment.
  • One of the cleverest devices I saw was a comprehensive examination tool from Tyto Care. A small kit can carry the elements of a home health care exam, all focused on a cute little sphere that fits easily in the palm. Jeff Cutler, Chief Revenue Officer, showed me a simple check on the heart, ear, and throat that anyone can perform. You can do it with a doctor on the other end of a video connection, or save the data and send it to a doctor for later evaluation.

    Tyto Care has a home version that is currently being used and distributed by partners such as Heath Systems, providers, payers and employers, but will ultimately be available for sale to consumers for $299. They also offer a professional and remote clinic version that’s tailor-made for a school or assisted living facility.

A new Digital Therapeutics Alliance was announced just before the conference, hoping to promote more effective medical devices and allow solutions to scale up through such things as improving standards and regulations. Among other things, the alliance will encourage clinical trials, which I have already highlighted as critical.

Big advances were also announced by Validic, which I covered last year. Formerly a connectivity solution that unraveled the varying quasi-standard or non-standard protocols of different devices in order to take their data into electronic health records, Validic has created a new streaming API that allows much faster data transfers, at a much higher volume. On top of this platform they have built a notification service called Inform, which takes them from a networking solution to a part of the clinicians’ workflow.

Considerable new infrastructure is required to provide such services. For instance, like many medication adherence services, Validic can recognize when time has gone by without a patient reporting that’s he’s taken his pill. This level of monitoring requires storing large amounts of longitudinal data–and in fact, Validic is storing all transactions carried out over its platform. The value of such a large data set for discovering future health care solutions through analytics can make data scientists salivate.

The next segment of this article wraps up coverage of the conference with two more themes.

Measuring the Vital Signs of Health Care Progress at the Connected Health Conference (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on November 13, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Attendees at each Connected Health Conference know by now the architecture of health reform promoted there. The term “connected health” has been associated with a sophisticated amalgam of detailed wellness plans, modern sensors, continuous data collection in the field, patient control over data, frequent alerts and reminders, and analytics to create a learning health care system. The mix remains the same each year, so I go each time to seek out progress toward the collective goal. This year, I’ve been researching what’s happening in these areas:

  • Validation through clinical trials
  • Advanced interfaces to make user interaction easier
  • Improved data sharing (interoperability)
  • Blockchains

Panel at Connected Health Conference

Panel at Connected Health Conference

There were a few other trends of interest, which I’ll mention briefly here. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) turned up at some exhibitor booths and were the topic of a panel. Some of these technologies run on generic digital devices–such as the obsession-inducing Pokémon GO game–while others require special goggles such as the Oculus Rift (the first VR technology to show a promise for widespread adoption, and now acquired by Facebook) or Microsoft’s HoloLens. VR shuts out the user’s surroundings and presents her with a 360-degree fantasy world, whereas AR imposes information or images on the surroundings. Both VR and AR are useful for teaching, such as showing an organ in 3D organ in front of a medical student on a HoloLens, and rotating it or splitting it apart to show details.

I haven’t yet mentioned the popular buzzword “telehealth,” because it’s subsumed under the larger goal of connected health. I do use the term “artificial intelligence,” certainly a phrase that has gotten thrown around too much, and whose meaning is subject of much dissension. Everybody wants to claim the use of artificial intelligence, just as a few years ago everybody talked about “the cloud.” At the conference, a panel of three experts took up the topic and gave three different definitions of the term. Rather than try to identify the exact algorithms used by each product in this article and parse out whether they constitute “real” artificial intelligence, I go ahead and use the term as my interviewees use it.

Exhibition hall at Connected Health Conference

Exhibition hall at Connected Health Conference

Let’s look now at my main research topics.

Validation through clinical trials
Health apps and consumer devices can be marketed like vitamin pills, on vague impressions that they’re virtuous and that doing something is better than doing nothing. But if you want to hook into the movement for wellness–connected health–you need to prove your value to the whole ecosystem of clinicians and caretakers. The consumer market just doesn’t work for serious health care solutions. Expecting an individual to pay for a service or product would limit you to those who can afford it out-of-pocket, and who are concerned enough about wellness to drag out their wallets.

So a successful business model involves broaching the gates of Mordor and persuading insurers or clinicians to recommend your solution. And these institutions won’t budge until you have trials or studies showing that you actually make a difference–and that you won’t hurt anybody.

A few savvy app and device developers build in such studies early in their existence. For instance, last year I covered a typical connected health solution called Twine Health, detailing their successful diabetes and hypertension trials. Twine Health combines the key elements that one finds all over the Connected Health Conference: a care plan, patient tracking, data analysis, and regular check-ins. Their business model is to work with employer-owned health plans, and to expand to clinicians as they gradually migrate to fee-for-value reimbursement.

I sense that awareness is growing among app and device developers that the way to open doors in health care is to test their solutions rigorously and objectively. But I haven’t found many who do so yet.

In the next segment of this article continues my exploration of the key themes I identified at the start of this article.

The Healthcare IT Field is Unique, Yorktel Discovers

Posted on September 11, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O’Reilly’s Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Health care professionals love to vaunt the uniqueness of the medical industry, and tend to demand special, expensive treatment on that basis. Reformers tend to discount this special status. (For instance, the security problems in health care are identical to those in other industries, and are caused by the same factors of insufficient investment and training.) Yet telecommunications in hospitals and clinics really is special, and video giant Yorktel has spent the past five years adjusting to that reality. On September 5, Yorktel announced that it has enhanced its solutions for patient telemedicine with Univago HE that includes robust video connections, monitoring, and analytics as a service.

To learn how the company enhanced their video teleconferencing for healthcare, I recently talked to Peter McLain, Senior Vice President of Healthcare, and John Vitale, Senior Vice President of Project Management. They disassembled the various features of Univago that deal with hospital environments, which require reliable 24/7 connectivity, deal with a good deal of noise (both audible and electronic), and demand fast, faultless authorization to protect privacy.

Directional audio

The triangular table-top sets, familiar to so many of us from business teleconferencing, are omni-directional in order to facilitate use by people seated around the table. In a hospital, they pick up the whirr of carts going by, the chatter in the hallway, and the beeps and gurgles of machines in the patients’ rooms themselves. So Yorktel had to substitute directional microphones.

Camera positioning

Remote monitoring requires much more detail than talking heads in a teleconference. For instance, a remote nurse may want to check whether an IV bag is getting empty. So the person on the remote end of the video connection can direct the camera at particular points in the room and zoom in. Originally offering joystick-like controls for this purpose, Yorktel found them too confusing and cumbersome, so they created a system where a user can just double-click on her own screen to focus in on the place she indicated.

Infrared cameras

Remote monitoring takes place continuously, including when the room is dark. The staff don’t want to wake the patient while monitoring him, so Yorktel cameras support the display of scenes scanned from infrared light. A mild alert, such as a soft buzz, lets an awake patient know that he’s being monitored, without disturbing a sleeping patient.

Integration with dashboards

Yorktel software can be seamlessly integrated with other applications so that staff can see vital signs and other data while in a video call. The developers have made the systems adhere to relevant standards, including Skype, Web RTC, and H.323.

Robustness

Conventional business teleconference systems are used for a few hours each day; hospital systems are used 24/7 and must promise long mean times between failures. Yorktel addressed this on both a hardware and a software level. In hardware, they broke down large, integrated components into modules that would be easy to replace. In software, they built a custom operating system on Unix, feeling that would offer maximum reliability. They use artificial intelligence techniques to detect whether the camera has frozen (a common failure) and reboot the system before it interferes with a video session. Components can still fail, but McLain says they can be replaced within 15 minutes instead of 3 to 6 hours.

Security

Yorktel has hardened its authentication and authorization process to make sure that no one at random can dial into a system and see a patient in his bed. At the same time, they have integrated that process into mobile devices so the physician can check in from home or the road in case of an emergency.

The systems follow industry best practices, as specified by the ISO 27001 security standard and HIPAA. In order to expand into UK’s National Health Service and the European Union, Yorktel achieved Privacy Shield certification. They also get penetration testing from a third party expert, and incorporate anti-microbial technology into their systems. The systems are pending approval as Class 1 medical devices (the most reliable level of use) by the FDA.

Following security by design principles, Yorktel maintains no information for a patient. A physician finds the right room through an external service and calls that room. (If the patient wants to be called, he presses a button by the bedside, and a message is sent through some appropriate alert, such as a text message or a flashing screen.) No information on the traffic is preserved, and the call records have no personally identifying information.

Specialized services

Each department in a hospital has different needs, and Yorktel has provided specific enhancements to make their systems more useful in various settings.

For instance, family visits are an excellent use case for videoconferencing. A session can be shared with family members who can’t get in to the hospital. It can also be recorded and saved by the hospital (as mentioned earlier, Yorktel does not preserve session traffic) so it can be viewed again or brought out to prove that the hospital fulfilled its responsibility. To enable family visits, Yorktel allows the staff to designate members of the call as guests. The visitors are called “guests” because they have no control over the systems, but can see and hear what goes on during the session.

For general use in medical settings, Yorktel also allows sidebar conversations. The patient can be put on hold while physicians discuss treatment candidly and privately among themselves.

Via these enhancements targeted at hospitals and clinics, Yorktel has expanded its business in health care. It started with a common application, remote monitoring in the ICU, but expanded to telestroke care, family health, behavioral health, and translational services. They also knew that hospitals already have expensive, dedicated systems for many of these tasks, and don’t want to throw them away, especially if the outcome is to be locked in yet again to some proprietary system. Hence Yorktel’s dedication to standards.

Currently, video conferencing in the hospital is so expensive that it tends to be restricted to ICUs and a few other applications. Ultimately, Yorktel’s subscription plans should offer systems at a low enough cost that they can be deployed universally in hospitals and clinics.

What can other technology developers, outside of two-way video, learn about health care from the Yorktel experience? Most of all, go into the environments where you want your systems used and get to know the needs and workflows of the participants. Systems must be flexible, because each user is different. The systems must also be secure from the ground up, robust, and conformant to standards. Cost is also an important issue in most settings, particularly given the cuts in reimbursement that are widespread.

As it designs systems to interact along standards with other vendors, Yorktel’s strength in software has grown exponentially. This parallels trends throughout many industries, from manufacturers through retailers. Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011 that software is eating the world, and along these line, many analysts say that all companies will soon be software companies–or be drowned by their more agile competition. In this sense, we can all learn from Yorktel.

Both US And International Doctors Unimpressed With Govt Telehealth Adoption

Posted on May 25, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A new survey by physician social network SERMO has concluded that both US and foreign physicians aren’t impressed with national and local telehealth efforts by governments.

The US portion of the survey, which had 1,651 physician respondents, found that few US doctors were pleased with the telehealth adoption efforts in their state. Forty-one percent said they felt their state had done a “fair” job in adopting telehealth, which 44 percent said the state’s programs were either “poor” or “very poor.” Just 15 percent of US physicians rated their state’s telehealth leaders as doing either “well” or “very well” with such efforts.

Among the various states, Ohio’s programs got the best ratings, with 22 percent of doctors saying the state’s telehealth programs were doing “well” or “very well.” California came in in second place, with 20 percent of physician-respondents describing their state’s efforts as doing “well” or “very well.”

On the flip side, 59 percent of New Jersey doctors said the state’s telehealth efforts were “poor” or “very poor.” New York also got low ratings, with 51 percent of doctors deeming the state’s programs were “poor” or “very poor.”

Interestingly, physicians based outside the US had comparable – though slightly more positive — impressions of their countries’ telehealth efforts. Thirty-eight percent of the 1,831 non-US doctors responding to the survey rated their country as having done a “fair” job with telehealth adoption, a stronger middle ground than in the US. That being said, 43 percent said their country has done a “poor” or “very poor” job with adopting telehealth programs, while just 19 percent rated their countries’ efforts as going “well” or “very well.”

As with state-by-state impressions in the US, physicians’ impressions of how well their country was doing with telehealth adoption varied significantly.  Spain got the best rating, with 26 percent of physicians saying efforts there were going “well” or “very well.” Meanwhile, the United Kingdom got the worst ratings, with 62 percent of doctors describing telehealth efforts there as “poor” or “very poor.”

Of course, all of this begs the question of what doctors were taking into account when they rated their country or state’s telehealth-related initiatives.

What makes doctors feel one telehealth adoption program is effective and another not effective? What kind of support are physicians looking for from their state or country? Are there barriers to implementation that a government entity is better equipped to address than private industry? Do they want officials to support the advancement of telehealth technology?  I’d prefer to know the answers to these questions before leaping to any conclusions about the significance of SERMO’s data.

That being said, it does seem that doctors see some role for government in promoting the growth of telehealth use, if for no other reason than that that they’re paying enough attention to know whether such efforts are working or not. That surprises me a bit, given that the biggest obstacles to physician telehealth adoption are generally getting paid for such services and handling the technology aspects of telemedicine delivery.

But if the study is any indication, doctors want more support from public entities. I’ll be interested to see whether Ohio and California keep leading the pack in this country — and what they’re doing right.

More Vendors, Providers Integrating Telemedicine Data With EHRs

Posted on April 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

One of the biggest problems providers face in rolling out telemedicine is how to integrate the data it generates. Must doctors make some kind of alternate set of notes appropriate to the medium, or do they belong in the EHR? Should healthcare organizations import the video and notate the general contents? And how should they connect the data with their EHR?

While we may not have definitive answers to such questions yet, it appears that the telehealth industry is moving in the right direction. According to a new survey by the American Telemedicine Association, respondents said that they’re seeing growth in interoperability with EHRs, progress which has increased their confidence in telemedicine’s future.

Before going any further, I should note that the surveyed population is a bit odd. The ATA reached out not only to leaders in hospital systems and medical practices, but also “telehealth service providers,” which sounds like merely an opportunity for self-promotion. But leaving aside this issue, it’s still worth thinking a bit about the data, such as it is.

First, not surprisingly, the results are a ringing endorsement of telemedicine technology. The group reports that 83 percent of respondents said they’ll probably invest in telehealth this year, and 88 percent will invest in telehealth-related technology.

When asked why they’re interested in delivering these services, 98 percent said that they believe telehealth services offer a competitive advantage over those that don’t offer it. And 84 percent of respondents expect that offering telehealth services will have a big impact on their organization’s coverage and reach.

(According to another survey, by Avizia and Modern Healthcare, other reasons providers are engaging with telehealth is because they believe it can improve clinical outcomes and support their transition to value-based care.)

When it comes to documenting its key thesis – that the integration of EHR and telehealth data is proceeding apace – the ATA research doesn’t go the distance. But I know from other studies that telemedicine vendors are indeed working on this issue – and why wouldn’t they? Any sophisticated telemedicine vendor has to know this is a big deal.

For example, telemedicine vendor American Well has been working with a long list of health plans and health systems for a while, in an effort to integrate the telehealth process with provider workflows. To support these efforts, American Well has created an enterprise telehealth platform designed to connect with providers’ clinical information systems. I’ve also observed that DoctorOnDemand has made some steps in that direction.

Ultimately, everyone in telehealth will have to get on board. Regardless of where they’re at now, those engaging in telehealth will need to push the interoperability puck forward.

In fact, integrating telehealth documentation with EMRs has to be a priority for everyone in the business. Even if integrating clinical data from virtual consults wasn’t important for analytics purposes, it is important to collecting insurance reimbursement. Now that private health plans (and Medicare) are reimbursing for telemedical care, you can rest assured that they’ll demand documentation if they don’t like your claim. And when it comes to Medicare, arguing that you haven’t figured out how to document these details won’t cut it.

In other words, while there’s some overarching reasons why integrating this data is a good long-term strategy, we need to keep immediate concerns in mind too. Telemedicine data has to be seen as documentation first, before we add any other bells and whistles. Otherwise, providers will get off on the wrong foot with insurers, and they’ll have trouble getting back on track.

E-Patient Update: Naughty, Naughty Telehealth Users

Posted on March 17, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Wow. I mean, wow. I can’t believe the article I just read, in otherwise-savvy Wired magazine yet, arguing that patients who access telemedicine services are self-indulgent and, well, sorta stupid.

Calling it the “Uber-ization” of healthcare, writer Megan Molteni (@MeganMolteni on Twitter) argues that telemedicine will only survive if people use it “responsibly” – apparently because people are currently accessing care via direct-to-consumer services because their favorite online gambling site was offline for system maintenance.

In making this claim, Molteni cites new research from RAND, published in the journal Health Affairs, which looked at the impact direct-to-consumer telemedicine services had on overall healthcare costs. But the piece goes from acknowledging that this model might not reduce costs in all cases to attacking e-patients like myself – and that’s where I got a bit steamed.

In structuring the piece, the writer seems to suggest that if consumer behavior doesn’t save the health insurance industry money, we need to stop being so gosh-darned assertive about getting help with our health. Then it goes further, arguing that we should just for-Pete’s-sake control ourselves (apparently we’re either hypochondriacs, attention-seekers or terminally bored) and just step away from the computer.  Why can’t we just say no?

First, the facts

Before we take this on, let’s take a look at the journal article which the writer drew upon as a primary source and see what assertions it makes. Facts first.

In the abstract, the authors note that demand for direct-to-consumer telehealth services is growing rapidly, and has the potential to save money by replacing physician office and emergency department trips with virtual visits.

To see whether this might be the case, the authors gathered commercial claims data over 300,000 patients covered by CalPERS Blue Shield, which began covering telehealth services in April 2012. During the next 18 months, 2,943 of those 300,000 enrollees came down with a respiratory infection, one third of which sought services from direct-to-consumer telehealth company Teladoc.

Once they had their data in hand, the research looked at patterns of care utilization and spending levels for treatment of acute respiratory illnesses.

After completing the analysis, the authors found that 12% of direct-to-consumer telehealth visits replaced visits to other providers, while the remaining 88% represented new care utilization. Net annual spending on acute respiratory illness grew $45 per telehealth users, researchers found.

The researchers concluded that because it offers more convenient access, direct-to-consumer telehealth may increase utilization and healthcare spending.

It should be noted that Molteri’s article doesn’t look at whether increased utilization was excessive or ineffective. It doesn’t ask whether patients who accessed telemedical care had different outcomes than those who didn’t and if those new patients saved the health system money because of the interventions that wouldn’t have happened without telehealth. It doesn’t address whether patients who used telehealth in addition to face-to-face care were actually sicker than those who didn’t, or had other co-existing conditions which affected overall costs. It just notes a pattern for a single group of patients diagnosed with a single condition.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that we don’t know whether Teladoc’s performance is better or worse than that of rivals like HealthTap, MDLive and Doctor on Demand. And if there are meaningful differences, that would be important.  But the piece doesn’t take this on either.

So in summary, all we know is that using one provider for one condition, a health plan paid a little bit more for some patients’ care when they had a telemedicine consult.

Consumer indictment

But in Molteri’s analysis, the study offers nothing less than an indictment of consumers who use these services. “For telehealth to fully deliver on its promise, people have to start treating their health care less like an Uber you summon in a thunderstorm,” she asserts, while citing no evidence that people do in fact access such services too casually.

All told, the piece suggests that the people are accessing telehealth for trivial reasons such as, I don’t know, kicks, or as an easy way to find an online buddy. Really? Give me a break. Even when it’s delivered online, people seek care out because they need it, not because they’re lazy or, as I noted above, stupid.

To be as fair as I can be, the article does note that direct-to-consumer healthcare models have unique flaws, particularly a lack of integration with patients’ ongoing care. It also concedes that some providers (such as the VA, which has slashed costs with its telehealth program) are using the technology effectively.

It also notes that telemedicine can do more to meet its potential if it’s used to manage chronic disease and engage people in preventive care. “Telehealth has to be integrated fully into a total care system,” said Mario Gutierrez, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, who spoke with Molteri. As a patient with multiple chronic conditions, I couldn’t agree more. Anything that makes care access easier on one of my bad days is a winner in my book.

Ultimately, though, the author unfortunately bases her article on the assumption that the real problem here is patients accessing care. Not the gaps in the system that prompt such usage. Not the unavailability of primary care in some settings. Not the 15-minute fly-by medical visits that perforce leave issues unaddressed. Not even the larger issues in controlling healthcare costs. No, it’s e-patients like me who use telehealth to meet unmet needs.

Please. I can’t even.

E-Patient Update:  Can Telemedicine Fill Gap For Uninsured Patients?

Posted on February 24, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As someone who will soon will need to buy insurance through an ACA exchange – but doesn’t know whether that will still be possible – I’ve been thinking about my healthcare needs a lot, and how to meet them effectively if I’m ever uninsured.

Being an e-patient, the first thing that crossed my mind was to explore what Internet connectivity could do for me. And it occurred to me that if I had access to a wider range of comparatively-affordable telemedical services, I just might be able to access enough doctors and advanced practice clinicians to survive. (Of course, hospital and prescription drug costs won’t be tamed that easily, but that’s a subject for a different column.)

I admit that video visits aren’t an ideal solution for me and my husband, as we both have complex, chronic health conditions to address. But if I end up without insurance, I hold out hope that cheaper telemedicine options will get me through until we find a better solution.

Right now, unfortunately, telemedical services largely seem to be delivered on a hit-or-miss basis – with some specialties being easy to find and others almost inaccessible via digital connectivity – but if enough people like me are forced to rely on these channels perhaps this will change.

What’s available and what isn’t

This week, I did some unscientific research online to see what kind of care consumers can currently access online without too much fuss. What I found was a decidedly mixed bag. According to one telehealth research site, a long list of specialties offer e-visits, but some of them are much harder to access than others.

As you might have guessed, primary care – or more accurately, urgent care — is readily available. In fact one such provider, HealthTap, offers consumers unlimited access to its doctors for $99 a month. Such unfettered access could be a big help to patients without insurance.

And some specialties seem to be well-represented online. For example, if you want to get a dermatology consult, you can see a dermatologist online at DermatologistOnCall, which is partnered with megapharmacy Walgreens.

Telepsychiatry seems to be reasonably established, though it doesn’t seem to be backed yet by a major consumer branding effort. On the other hand, video visits with talk therapists seem to be fairly commonplace these days, including an option provided by HealthTap.

I had no trouble finding opportunities to connect with neurologists via the Web, either via email or live video. This included both multispecialty sites and at least one (Virtual Neurology) dedicated to offering teleneurology consults.

On the other hand, at least in searching Google, I didn’t find any well-developed options for tele-endocrinology consults (a bummer considering that hubby’s a Type 2 diabetic). It was the same for tele-pulmonology services.

In both of the former cases, I imagine that such consults wouldn’t work over time unless you had connected testing devices that, for example allow you to do a peak flow test, spirometry, blood or urine test at home. But while such devices are emerging, I’m not aware of any that are fully mature.

Time to standardize

All told, I’m not surprised that it’s hit or miss out there if you want to consult your specialists via an e-visit. There are already trends in place, which have evolved over the last few years, which favor some specialties and fail to address others.

Nonetheless, particularly given my perilous situation, I’m hoping that providers and trade groups will develop some standardized approaches to telemedicine. My feeling is that if a specialty-specific organization makes well-developed clinical, technical, operational and legal guidelines available, we’ll see a secondary explosion of new tele-specialties emerge.

In fact, even if I retain my health insurance benefits, I still hope that telemedical services become more prevalent. They’re generally more cost-efficient than traditional care and certainly more convenient. And I’m pretty confident that I’m not the only one champing at the bit here. Let’s roll ‘em out, people!

Consumers Want Their Doctors To Offer Video Visits

Posted on February 6, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A new survey by telemedicine provider American Well has concluded that many consumers are becoming interested in video visits, and that some of consumers would be willing to switch doctors to get video visits as part of their care. Of course, given that American Well provides video visits this is a self-interested conclusion, but my gut feeling is that it’s on target nonetheless.

According to the research, 72% of parents with children under 18 were willing to see a doctor via video, as well as 72% of consumers aged 45-54 and 53% of those over age 65. Americal Well’s study also suggests that the respondents see video visits as more effective than in-person consults, with 85% reporting that a video visit resolved their issues, as compared with 64% of those seeing a doctor in a brick-and-mortar setting.

In addition, respondents said they want their existing doctors to get on board. Of those with a PCP, 65% were very or somewhat interested in conducting video visits with their PCP.  Meanwhile, 20% of consumers said they would switch doctors to get access to video visits, a number which rises to 26% among those aged 18 to 34, 30% for those aged 35 to 44 and and 34% for parents of children under age 18.

In addition to getting acute consults via video visit, 60% of respondents said that they would be willing to use them to manage a chronic condition, and 52% of adults reported that they were willing to participate in post-surgical or post-hospital-discharge visits through video.

Consumers also seemed to see video visits as a useful way to help them care for ill or aging family members. American Well found that 79% of such caregivers would find this approach helpful.

Meanwhile, large numbers of respondents seemed interested in using video visits to handle routine chronic care. The survey found that 78% of those willing to have a video visit with a doctor would be happy to manage chronic conditions via video consults with their PCP.

What the researchers draw from all of this is that it’s time for providers to start marketing video visit capabilities. Americal Well argues that by promoting these capabilities, providers can bring new patients into their systems, divert patients away from the ED and into higher-satisfaction options and improve their management of chronic conditions by making it easier for patients to stay in touch.

Ultimately, of course, providers will need to integrate video into the rest of their workflow if this channel is to mature fully. And providers will need to make sure their video visits meet the same standards as other patient interactions, including HIPAA-compliant security for the content, notes Dr. Sherry Benton of TAO Connect. Providers will also need to figure out whether the video is part of the official medical record, and if so, how they will share copies if the patient request them. But there are ways to address these issues, so they shouldn’t prevent providers from jumping in with both feet.

Time To Treat Telemedicine as Just “Medicine”

Posted on October 25, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Over the last year or two, hospitals and clinics have shown a steadily growing interest in offering telemedicine services. Certainly, this is in part due to the fact that health plans are beginning to pay for telehealth consults, offering a new revenue stream that providers want to capture, but there’s more to consider here.

Until recently, much of the discussion around telehealth centered on how to get health insurance companies to pay for it. But now, as value-based purchasing becomes more the norm, providers will need to look at telemedicine as a key tool for managing patient health more effectively.

Evidence increasingly suggests that making providers available via telemedicine channels can help better manage chronic conditions and avert needless hospitalizations, both of which, under value-based payments, are more important than getting a few extra dollars for a consult.

Looked at another way, the days of telehealth being a boutique service for more-sophisticated consumers are ending. “It’s time to treat telemedicine as just ‘medicine,’” one physician consultant told me. “It’s no different than any other form of medicine.”

As reasons for treating telehealth as a core clinical service increase, barriers to sharing video and other telemedical records are falling, the consultant says. Telemedicine providers can already push the content of a video visit or other telehealth consult into an EMR using HL7, and soon information sharing should go both ways, he notes.

What’s more, breaking down another wall, major EMR vendors are offering providers the ability to conduct a telehealth visit using their platform. For example, Epic is offering telemedicine services to providers via its MyChart portal and Hyperspace platform, in collaboration with telehealth video provider Vidyo. Cerner, which operates some tele-ICUs, has gone even further, with senior exec John Glaser recently arguing that telehealth needs to be a central part of its population health strategy.

Admittedly, even if providers develop a high level of comfort delivering care through telehealth platforms, it’s probably too soon to rely on this medium as an agent of change. If nothing else, the industry must face up to the fact that telemedicine demand isn’t huge among their patients at present, though consumer plays like AmWell and DoctoronDemand are building awareness.

Also, while scheduling and conducting telemedicine consults need not be profoundly different than holding a face-to-face visit — other than offering both patient and doctor more flexibility — working in time to manage and document these cases can still pose a workflow challenge. Practical issues such as how, physically, a doctor documents a telehealth visit while staring at the screen must be resolved, issues of scheduling addressed and even questions of how to store and retrieve such visit records must be thought through.

However, I think it’s fair to say that we’re past wondering whether telemedicine should be part of the healthcare process, and whether it makes financial sense for hospitals and clinics to offer it. Now we just have to figure out where and when.