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How to Build an Effective Rural Virtual Care and Telehealth Strategy

Posted on October 10, 2018 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Lee Horner, CEO of Synzi.

Rural healthcare organizations are increasingly interested in implementing virtual care and telehealth solutions in order to better meet the needs of their facilities, staff, and patient population. In danger of closing their doors, rural hospitals are struggling to survive and thrive in a healthcare environment with razor-thin margins.

iVantage’s 2017 Rural Relevance Study reports that 41 percent of rural hospitals operate at a negative margin. Poor financial performance is impacting these hospitals’ ability to keep their doors open and serve rural communities. In fact, the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) reported that the number of rural hospital closures has risen to 87 in the last 8 years.

A rural hospital closure has significant impact to its community. These facilities provide fundamental healthcare services to nearly 57 million people across the country and are often an integral part of the local economy, providing jobs and a tax base for the community. John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH) stated that hospitals are a critical element of a town’s survival: “Hospitals, schools, churches. It’s the three-legged stool. If one of those falls down, you don’t have a town.”

Virtual care technology can be a viable delivery option for healthcare facilities and residents in rural communities. To best build an effective virtual care strategy, rural healthcare organizations should short-list solutions which solve for limited bandwidth in rural areas, patient preference for mobile devices and communications, an organization’s current infrastructure and workflow, and security concerns.

Addressing Bandwidth Issues: Rural healthcare organizations may initially think that limited Wi-Fi and broadband availability will restrict telehealth adoption by a facility, a medical practice and/or the patients themselves. However, rural healthcare organizations can identify and implement solutions which work across any level of connectivity (whether cellular or Wi-Fi) to ensure that the providers and the patients can use the solution without issues. Various entities are actively pushing for continued investment in our nation’s broadband infrastructure and rural communities are a priority for future build-out.

Reflecting Patient Preferences: Patients are already using many devices – including smartphones, tablets, and/or computers – which also provide them with more convenient access to healthcare without requiring significant travel time and costs. Moving forward, rural healthcare organizations should prioritize solutions which are device-agnostic and should also ensure their patient communications work across any type of modality. Providers and patients already own many of these devices; a flexible virtual care platform will help organizations and individuals reap more benefits out of the investments they have already made in technology.

Optimizing Current Workflows: Healthcare organizations have ongoing clinical workflows, and may be wary of technology’s role in automating these processes. However, rural healthcare organizations’ existing workflows can be optimized by using a virtual care platform which ensures that the virtual care protocols are consistent with in-person protocols in terms of engaging at-home patients and/or reaching offsite specialists for a needed consult. The ideal solution should be intuitive and easy to use; providers will then be able to quickly incorporate virtual care into their practices.

Addressing Security Concerns: When exploring new technology, most healthcare organizations will initially question if a net-new solution meets safety and privacy standards. Rural healthcare organizations should prioritize solutions which are HIPAA-compliant and HITRUST-certified to ensure security, privacy and compliance. Although rural health providers will immediately understand the need to adopt a virtual care platform, IT departments and champions will also need to realize that the adoption of this new technology will benefit providers, patients, and ultimately, the sustainability of the healthcare organization. Virtual care technology is essential to rural healthcare as it helps close the time and distance gap in terms of providing patients with the care they need, when they need it – regardless of where the patients or the providers are located.

The rural population has noted gaps in both access and quality. An estimated one in five Americans live and work in rural areas across the nation, yet, there are 2,157 Health Professional Shortage Areas in rural areas compared to 910 in urban areas. Moreover, the Rural Health Information Hub reports that 19.5 percent of rural adults describe their health status as fair/poor vs. 15.6 percent of their urban counterparts. Virtual care technology can help address the gap in care by providing access to additional physicians and needed specialists at the click of a button. By leveraging external and/or associated hospitals and physician groups, rural hospitals strengthen their care within the vast populations and geographies they support.

A Missed Opportunity For Telemedicine Vendors

Posted on June 29, 2018 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.

Today, most direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies operate on a very simple model.

You pay for a visit up front. You talk to the doctor via video, the doctor issues as a prescription if needed and you sign off. Thanks to the availability of e-prescribing options, it’s likely your medication will be waiting for you when you get to the pharmacy.

In my experience, the whole process often takes 45 minutes or less. This beats the heck out of having to wait in line at an urgent care center or worse, the emergency department.

But what about caring for chronic illnesses that can’t be managed by a drive-by virtual visit? Can telemedicine vendors play a role here? Maybe so.

We already know that combining telemedicine with remote monitoring devices can be very effective. In fact, some health systems have gone all-in on virtual chronic care management.

One fascinating example is the $54 million Mercy Virtual Care Center, which describes itself as a “hospital without beds.” The Center, which has a few hundred employees, monitors more than 3,800 remote patients; sponsors a telehealth stroke program offering neurology services to EDs nationwide; manages a team of virtual hospitalists caring for patient around-the-clock using virtual visit tools; and runs Mercy SafeWatch, which the Center says is the largest single-hub electronic intensive care unit in the U.S.

Another example of such hospital-based programs is Intermountain Healthcare’s ConnectCare Pro, which brings together 35 telehealth programs and more than 500 clinicians. Its purpose is to supplement existing staffers and offer specialized services in rural communities where some of the services aren’t available.

Given the success of programs that maintain complex patients remotely, I think a private telemedicine company managing chronic care services might work as well. While hospitals have financial reasons to keep such care in-house, I believe an outside vendor could profit in other ways. That’s especially the case given the emergence of wearable trackers and smartwatches, which are far cheaper than the specialized tools needed in the past.

One likely buyer for this service would be health plans.

I’ve heard some complain publicly that in essence, telemedicine coverage just encourages patients to access care more often, which defeats the purpose of using it to lower healthcare costs. However, if an outside vendor offered to manage patients with chronic illnesses, it might be a more attractive proposition.

After all, health plans are understandably wringing their hands over the staggering cost of maintaining the health of millions of diabetics. In 2017, for example, the average medical expense for people diagnosed with diabetes was about $16,750 per year, with $9,600 due to diabetes. If health plans could lay the cost off to a specialized telemedicine vendor, some real savings might be possible.

Of course, being a telemedicine-based chronic care management company would be far different than offering direct-to-consumer telemedicine services on an occasional basis. The vendor would have to have comprehensive health data management tools, an army of case managers, tight relationships with clinicians and a boatload of remote monitoring devices on hand. None of this would come cheaply.

Still, while I haven’t fully run the numbers, my guess is that this could be a sustainable business model. It’s worth a try.

An Interesting Overview Of Alphabet’s Healthcare Investments

Posted on June 27, 2018 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.

Recently I’ve begun reading a blog called The Medical Futurist which offers some very interesting fare. In addition to some intriguing speculation, it includes some research that I haven’t seen anywhere else. (It is written by a physician named Bertalan Mesko.)

In this case, Mesko has buried a shrewd and well-researched piece on Alphabet’s healthcare investments in an otherwise rambling article. (The rambling part is actually pretty interesting on its own, by the way.)

The piece offers a rather comprehensive update on Alphabet’s investments in and partnerships with healthcare-related companies, suggesting that no other contender in Silicon Valley is investing in this sector heavily as Alphabet’s GV (formerly Google Ventures). I don’t know if he’s right about this, but it’s probably true.

By Mesko’s count, GV has backed almost 60 health-related enterprises since the fund was first kicked off in 2009. These investments include direct-to-consumer genetic testing firm 23andme, health insurance company Oscar Health, telemedicine venture Doctor on Demand and Flatiron Health, which is building an oncology-focused data platform.

Mesko also points out that GV has had an admirable track record so far, with five of the companies it first backed going public in the last year. I’m not sure I agree that going public is per se a sign of success — a lot depends on how the IPO is received by Wall Street– but I see his logic.

In addition, he notes that Alphabet is stocking up on intellectual resources. The article cites research by Ernest & Young reporting that Alphabet filed 186 healthcare-related patents between 2013 and 2017.

Most of these patents are related to DeepMind, which Google acquired in 2014, and Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences). While these deals are interesting in and of themselves, on a broader level the patents demonstrate Alphabet’s interest in treating chronic illnesses like diabetes and the use of bioelectronics, he says.

Meanwhile, Verily continues to work on a genetic data-collecting initiative known as the Baseline Study. It plans to leverage this data, using some of the same algorithms behind Google’s search technology, to pinpoint what makes people healthy.

It’s a grand and somewhat intimidating picture.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to discuss here, and even Mesko’s in-depth piece barely scratches the surface of what can come out of Alphabet and Google’s health investments. Regardless, it’s worth keeping track of their activity in the sector even if you find it overwhelming. You may be working for one of those companies someday.

London Doctors Stage Protest Over Rollout Of App

Posted on April 18, 2018 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.

We all know that doctors don’t take kindly to being forced to use health IT tools. Apparently, that’s particularly the case in London, where a group of general practitioners recently held a protest to highlight their problems with a telemedicine app rolled out by the National Health Service.

The doctors behind the protest are unhappy with the way the NHS structured its rollout of the smartphone app GP at Hand, which they say has created extra work and confusion among the patients.

The service, which is run by UK-based technology company Babylon Health, launched in November of last year. Using the app, patients can either have a telemedicine visit or schedule an in-person appointment with a GP’s office. Telemedicine services are available 24/7, and patients can be seen in minutes in some cases.

GP at Hand seems to be popular with British consumers. Since its launch, over 26,000 patients have registered for the service, according to the NHS.

However, to participate in the service, patients are automatically de-registered from their existing GP office when they register for GP at Hand. Many patients don’t seem to have known this. According to the doctors at the protest, they’ve been getting calls from angry former patients demanding that they be re-registered with their existing doctor’s office.

The doctors also suggest that the service gets to cherry-pick healthier, more profitable patients, which weighs down their practice. “They don’t want patients with complex mental health problems, drug problems, dementia, a learning disability or other challenging conditions,” said protest organizer Dr. Jackie Applebee. “We think that’s because these patients are expensive.” (Presumably, Babylon is paid out of a separate NHS fund than the GPs.)

Is there lessons here for US-based healthcare providers? Perhaps so.

Of course, the National Health Service model is substantially different from the way care is delivered in this country, so the administrative challenges involved in rolling out a similar service could be much different. But this news does offer some lessons to consider nonetheless.

For one thing, it reminds us that even in a system much different than ours, financing and organizing telemedicine services can be fraught with conflict. Reimbursement would be an even bigger issue than it seems to have been in the UK.

Also, it’s also of note that the NHS and Babylon Health faced a storm of patient complaints about the way the service was set up. It’s entirely possible that any US-based efforts would generate their own string of unintended consequences, the magnitude which would be multiplied by the fact that there’s no national entity coordinating such a rollout.

Of course, individual health systems are figuring out how to offer telemedicine and blend it with access to in-person care. But it’s telling that insurers with a national presence such as CIGNA or Humana aren’t plunging into telemedicine with both feet. At least none of them have seen substantial success in their efforts. Bottom line, offering telehealth is much harder than it looks.

The Win-Win of Today’s Telemedicine Technology for All Practices

Posted on March 22, 2018 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Sean Brindley, Product Development Manager, Kareo Telemedicine

The healthcare profession has been talking about telemedicine and its potential benefits almost as long as there have been phones. Over the last five years, adoption of telemedicine programs has increased steadily, but for some practices, particularly smaller, independent offices, the questions loom larger. How disruptive will adopting telemedicine be to office workflow? Will telemedicine overburden office staff? What are the risks involved in trying it? How will they get reimbursed for the investment? And, most important, what benefits can telemedicine bring to the individual practice that offset the impact of the learning curve?

Unlike even one or two years ago, today’s answers are mostly positive.

Reimbursement Is Real

Let’s tackle the big question first – reimbursement. Starting at the simplest point, most practices today give away a lot of practitioner time in telephone consults that are not reimbursable. Finding a way to generate revenue on even some of those would be a boon to most practices. But the news is far more positive than that. Thirty-five states, plus eight more pending, have enacted telemedicine parity requiring certain payers to pay for telemedicine consultations just as they would reimburse face-to-face visits. Private payers have been at the forefront of telemedicine adoption, likely recognizing telemedicine as a highly cost-effective delivery system for healthcare.  At the same time, a recent bill (The Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017), has relaxed the restriction on Medicare reimbursements for telemedicine, and while Medicaid reimbursement varies substantially from state to state, there are places where the reimbursement practices go further than Medicare. All practices should carefully review the rules and regulations in their states. Parity doesn’t always mean parity. This is why it’s an advantage to have a telemedicine visit option that’s built into the EHR and practice management system, not a separate application. This ensures a smooth reimbursement process. For example, in Kareo when a video appointment is scheduled, the system automatically verifies that the patient is covered for telemedicine. This removes much of the burden from the office staff and greatly increases the chances that the telemedicine program will provide a revenue stream for the office.

What’s In It For Practices?

Beyond the potential for reimbursing telemedicine visits, how will telemedicine impact the operation of offices? First, telemedicine can increase the number of daily or weekly visits without increasing the practitioner’s work hours because visits conducted via most well-designed telemedicine systems take less time than an in-person visit. For example, a practice with three providers who each add two video visits per day, at an average reimbursement of $72, will earn an extra $103,680 in revenue over the course of a year. Telemedicine also greatly reduces the number of no-shows and cancellations. Patients with a telemedicine appointment are less likely to cancel because of work issues, transportation, child care, or just plain forgetting. An office appointment that has to be cancelled at the last minute can even be changed to a video visit, keeping the patient on track and not wasting the practitioner’s time. Having telemedicine available makes a practice more competitive against the rising number of “convenient” healthcare outlets like urgent care, walk-ins and on-demand care.

What’s In It For Patients?

Perhaps most important, telemedicine has the potential to improve patient health and increase quality outcomes since it provides an easy way to stay in ongoing touch with patients. The best use cases are for routine follow-up care where the appointment does not require a physical examination. For example, ideal cases for video visits are ongoing care for chronic conditions, observing treatment plans, reviewing slightly abnormal lab results, providing prescription updates, and discussing lifestyle changes for weight loss, smoking cessation and much more. Better quality outcomes also mean better reimbursement under today’s quality-driven healthcare system. Some of the specialties regularly using telemedicine are:

  • Primary Care
  • OB/GYN
  • Neurology
  • Nephrology
  • Mental/Behavioral Health
  • Gastroenterology
  • Endocrinology
  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • Pulmonology
  • Infectious Disease
  • Urology
  • Hematology/Oncology

How Much Impact on Staff?

Traditionally, many providers have offered separate applications for telemedicine, which required additional steps and training for office staff, making it more difficult to implement, especially for small practices. However, telemedicine is now more feasible for all practices because new technology from Kareo integrates telemedicine seamlessly into the EHR platform. For example, our customers can schedule telemedicine appointments directly in their practice management system, maintaining current office workflow for scheduling, charting and billing with no extra steps or training required. The automatic eligibility verification removes much of the financial burden and produces on average 10 times the provider’s cost per visit.  Patients can request appointments online and conduct the visit through a mobile device or desktop.

Removing the Risk

In busy practices, all changes can feel risky in terms of impact on staff, patients and investment costs. The integration of telemedicine with popular EHR platforms removes much of the impact on staff. Since more than 64 percent of patients say they would be happy to have a telemedicine video appointment, the offering to patients is far more positive than negative. Finally, the investment risk has dropped to minimal. EHR providers that offer software-as-a service, such as Kareo, are now giving practices a chance to pay per telemedicine visit, thereby being charged only for what they use. These low per-visit fees reduce the start-up burden on small practices, so the financial risk drops to negligible. In this way the office can implement a telemedicine practice at its own pace, allowing reimbursements to keep pace with usage.

Chances are good that even the overworked independent practice can use today’s telemedicine technology as an opportunity to increase revenue, unburden staff, and enhance patient satisfaction with the most minimal of investments. After years of promise, telemedicine has become a win-win

About Sean Brindley
Sean Brindley is product development manager for Kareo Telemedicine. More information can be found on Kareo’s Go Practice blog.  Kareo is a proud sponsor of Healthcare Scene.

5 Drivers of Digital Change in Healthcare

Posted on January 29, 2018 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Hospital CIO (or as he prefers, CDO – Chief Digital Officer), David Chou, recently asked the question “What Is the Main Driver of Digital Health?” and then he shared this image from Cognizant.

These results are pretty interesting since the main driver of digital change in healthcare is the consumer. That’s right. Patients are asking for healthcare to go digital. However, health reforms, health insurance exchanges, and new risk accountability are influencing it pretty heavy as well.

While these drivers are interesting, the real message here is that digital change in healthcare is going to be required. The future consumer is not going to accept a healthcare organization that doesn’t embrace digital. This is going to be true in so many different forms.

For example, I can’t imagine my children going to a healthcare organization that doesn’t do telemedicine or that doesn’t support some sort of text messaging or similar digital communication. The idea of not communicating this way will be completely foreign to them. Those organizations that embrace it will be the big winners.

One thing that might hold this back is that in some cities healthcare organizations have near monopolies. Since healthcare is local, these near monopolies are really only competing with themselves when it comes to their digital health options. It won’t matter much that another hospital or health system across the country offers something better. Or will it matter?

We’d all love to have our normal doctor be the one doing our telemedicine visit. However, given the option of an in-person visit with our normal doctor or a telemedicine visit with a doctor across the country, I think we’ll start seeing many people opt for the later. We need a few more laws to change to make this a reality, but changes to those laws would certainly open up a new competition to own the online relationship with a patient.

What’s clear to me is that digital will dominate the future. What’s not clear to me yet is who will own that digital health relationship with patients. Will it be local? Will it be national healthcare organizations? Will it be some other large company?

What do you think about this digital change in healthcare? What’s making this a reality? How do you think this change will play out?

Key Articles in Health IT from 2017 (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on January 4, 2018 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 part of this article set a general context for health IT in 2017 and started through the year with a review of interesting articles and studies. We’ll finish the review here.

A thoughtful article suggests a positive approach toward health care quality. The author stresses the value of organic change, although using data for accountability has value too.

An article extolling digital payments actually said more about the out-of-control complexity of the US reimbursement system. It may or not be coincidental that her article appeared one day after the CommonWell Health Alliance announced an API whose main purpose seems to be to facilitate payment and other data exchanges related to law and regulation.

A survey by KLAS asked health care providers what they want in connected apps. Most apps currently just display data from a health record.

A controlled study revived the concept of Health Information Exchanges as stand-alone institutions, examining the effects of emergency departments using one HIE in New York State.

In contrast to many leaders in the new Administration, Dr. Donald Rucker received positive comments upon acceding to the position of National Coordinator. More alarm was raised about the appointment of Scott Gottlieb as head of the FDA, but a later assessment gave him high marks for his first few months.

Before Dr. Gottlieb got there, the FDA was already loosening up. The 21st Century Cures Act instructed it to keep its hands off many health-related digital technologies. After kneecapping consumer access to genetic testing and then allowing it back into the ring in 2015, the FDA advanced consumer genetics another step this year with approval for 23andMe tests about risks for seven diseases. A close look at another DNA site’s privacy policy, meanwhile, warns that their use of data exploits loopholes in the laws and could end up hurting consumers. Another critique of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has been written by Dr. Deborah Peel of Patient Privacy Rights.

Little noticed was a bill authorizing the FDA to be more flexible in its regulation of digital apps. Shortly after, the FDA announced its principles for approving digital apps, stressing good software development practices over clinical trials.

No improvement has been seen in the regard clinicians have for electronic records. Subjective reports condemned the notorious number of clicks required. A study showed they spend as much time on computer work as they do seeing patients. Another study found the ratio to be even worse. Shoving the job onto scribes may introduce inaccuracies.

The time spent might actually pay off if the resulting data could generate new treatments, increase personalized care, and lower costs. But the analytics that are critical to these advances have stumbled in health care institutions, in large part because of the perennial barrier of interoperability. But analytics are showing scattered successes, being used to:

Deloitte published a guide to implementing health care analytics. And finally, a clarion signal that analytics in health care has arrived: WIRED covers it.

A government cybersecurity report warns that health technology will likely soon contribute to the stream of breaches in health care.

Dr. Joseph Kvedar identified fruitful areas for applying digital technology to clinical research.

The Government Accountability Office, terror of many US bureaucracies, cam out with a report criticizing the sloppiness of quality measures at the VA.

A report by leaders of the SMART platform listed barriers to interoperability and the use of analytics to change health care.

To improve the lower outcomes seen by marginalized communities, the NIH is recruiting people from those populations to trust the government with their health data. A policy analyst calls on digital health companies to diversify their staff as well. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is also getting into the act.

Specific technologies

Digital apps are part of most modern health efforts, of course. A few articles focused on the apps themselves. One study found that digital apps can improve depression. Another found that an app can improve ADHD.

Lots of intriguing devices are being developed:

Remote monitoring and telehealth have also been in the news.

Natural language processing and voice interfaces are becoming a critical part of spreading health care:

Facial recognition is another potentially useful technology. It can replace passwords or devices to enable quick access to medical records.

Virtual reality and augmented reality seem to have some limited applications to health care. They are useful foremost in education, but also for pain management, physical therapy, and relaxation.

A number of articles hold out the tantalizing promise that interoperability headaches can be cured through blockchain, the newest hot application of cryptography. But one analysis warned that blockchain will be difficult and expensive to adopt.

3D printing can be used to produce models for training purposes as well as surgical tools and implants customized to the patient.

A number of other interesting companies in digital health can be found in a Fortune article.

We’ll end the year with a news item similar to one that began the article: serious good news about the ability of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to save money. I would also like to mention three major articles of my own:

I hope this review of the year’s articles and studies in health IT has helped you recall key advances or challenges, and perhaps flagged some valuable topics for you to follow. 2018 will continue to be a year of adjustment to new reimbursement realities touched off by the tax bill, so health IT may once again languish somewhat.

Health IT Leaders Spending On Security, Not AI And Wearables

Posted on December 18, 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.

While breakout technologies like wearables and AI are hot, health system leaders don’t seem to be that excited about adopting them, according to a new study which reached out to more than 20 US health systems.

Nine out of 10 health systems said they increased their spending on cybersecurity technology, according to research by the Center for Connected Medicine (CCM) in partnership with the Health Management Academy.

However, many other emerging technologies don’t seem to be making the cut. For example, despite the publicity it’s received, two-thirds of health IT leaders said using AI was a low or very low priority. It seems that they don’t see a business model for using it.

The same goes for many other technologies that fascinate analysts and editors. For example, while many observers which expect otherwise, less than a quarter of respondents (17%) were paying much attention to wearables or making any bets on mobile health apps (21%).

When it comes to telemedicine, hospitals and health systems noted that they were in a bind. Less than half said they receive reimbursement for virtual consults (39%) or remote monitoring (46%}. Things may resolve next year, however. Seventy-one percent of those not getting paid right now expect to be reimbursed for such care in 2018.

Despite all of this pessimism about the latest emerging technologies, health IT leaders were somewhat optimistic about the benefits of predictive analytics, with more than half of respondents using or planning to begin using genomic testing for personalized medicine. The study reported that many of these episodes will be focused on oncology, anesthesia and pharmacogenetics.

What should we make of these results? After all, many seem to fly in the face of predictions industry watchers have offered.

Well, for one thing, it’s good to see that hospitals and health systems are engaging in long-overdue beefing up of their security infrastructure. As we’ve noted here in the past, hospital spending on cybersecurity has been meager at best.

Another thing is that while a few innovative hospitals are taking patient-generated health data seriously, many others are taking a rather conservative position here. While nobody seems to disagree that such data will change the business, it seems many hospitals are waiting for somebody else to take the risks inherent in investing in any new data scheme.

Finally, it seems that we are seeing a critical mass of influential hospitals that expect good things from telemedicine going forward. We are already seeing some large, influential academic medical centers treat virtual care as a routine part of their service offerings and a way to minimize gaps in care.

All told, it seems that at the moment, study respondents are less interested in sexy new innovations than the VCs showering them with money. That being said, it looks like many of these emerging strategies might pay off in 2018. It should be an interesting year.

The Future Of Telemedicine Doesn’t Depend On Health Plans Anymore

Posted on December 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.

For as long as I can remember, the growth of telemedicine depended largely on overcoming two obstacles: bandwidth and reimbursement. Now, both are on the verge of melting away.

One, the availability of broadband, has largely been addressed, though there are certainly areas of the US where broadband is harder to get than it should be. Having lived through a time when the very idea of widely available consumer broadband blew our minds, it’s amazing to say this, but we’ve largely solved the problem in the United States.

The other, the willingness of insurers to pay for telemedicine services, is still something of an issue and will be for a while. However, it won’t stay that way for too much longer in my opinion.

Yes, over the short term it still matters whether a telemedicine visit is going to be funded by a payer –after all, if a clinician is going to deliver services somebody has to pay for their time. But there are good reasons why this will not continue to be an issue.

For one thing, as the direct-to-consumer models have demonstrated, patients are increasingly willing to pay for telemedical care out-of-pocket. Customers of sites like HealthTap and Teladoc won’t pay top dollar for such services, but it seems apparent that they’re willing to engage with and stay interested in solving certain problems this way (such as, for example, getting a personal illness triaged and treated without having to skip work the next day).

Another way telemedicine services have changed, from what I can see, is that health systems and hospitals are beginning to integrate it with their other service lines as a routine part of delivering care. Virtual consults are no longer this “weird” thing they do on the side, but a standard approach to addressing common health problems, especially chronic illness.

Then, of course, there’s the most important factor taking control of telemedicine away from health plans: the need to use it to achieve population health management goals. While its use is still a little bit lopsided at present, as healthcare organizations aren’t sure how to optimize telehealth initiatives, eventually they’ll get the formula right, and that will include using it as a way of tying together a seamless value-based delivery network.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without the reach, flexibility and low cost of telehealth delivery, building out population health management schemes might be almost impossible in the future. Having specialists available to address urgent matters and say, for example, rural areas will be critical on the one hand, while making specialists need for chronic care (such as endocrinologists) accessible to unwell urban patients with travel concerns.

Despite the growing adoption of telemedicine by providers, it may be 5 to 10 years or so before it has its fullest impact, a period during which health plans gradually accept that the growth of this technology isn’t up to them anymore. But the day will without a doubt arise soon enough that “telemedicine” is just known as medicine.

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.