David Steinhaus: Telemedicine Is Here

By David Steinhaus
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 5:11 PM

As we look to reform the health-care system, it's easy to lose sight of what is working now -- and what could make an immediate impact if expanded and adopted more widely. Telemedicine is one of those things.

In the past few years, telemedicine has moved closer to the mainstream.

There is an Apple iPhone application that enables patients to monitor their heartbeat remotely (pending FDA approval). Services such as TelaDoc deliver consultative care over the phone and Internet. And payors support their members' desire for these services, since cost-savings can be achieved while delivering quality care. Doctors also have become more comfortable with out-of-office solutions to care and the Internet itself as a medium for patient communication. In a recently released study, 39 percent of doctors said they'd communicated with patients online in the past year (up from just 16 percent five years earlier).

Telemedicine saves money by lowering the number of visits to doctors and emergency rooms -- by 30 percent for patients with congestive heart failure, according to the Center for Aging Services Technology -- and some associated costs, such as transportation. But the greatest benefits are to the quality of care. Imagine if patients and physicians could see the first signs of worsening disease, providing them an opportunity to intervene quickly. Medtronic, the medical technology firm for which I work, now counts nearly 400,000 patients with implanted cardiac devices that allow for remote follow-up visits and provide patients greater piece of mind. Telemedicine also ensures that those who need to be seen in a physical setting can be in a timely manner and that those with conditions that do not require an in-office visit are treated in other ways.

And more points of access make the right-minded goal of universal coverage -- which means more care that needs to be delivered -- more realistic, with telemedicine-enabled virtual clinics a great complement to the traditional office model.

With or without government assistance, telemedicine is no longer "a year away," but, rather, a key platform for a health-care marketplace desperately in need of solutions now.

Dr. David Steinhaus is the medical director of Medtronic Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management

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