Kevin J. BoyleDecades ago, telemedicine was considered a new frontier in providing appropriate care regardless of geography. It allowed rural patients to receive health services from specialists around the globe and freed doctors from the limitations of their surrounding areas. While these are still worthy pursuits today, the potential of telemedicine has proven to be much greater thanks to recent industry trends.

From patient centered medical homes (PCMHs) to accountable care organizations (ACOs), a variety of new models are being introduced to improve outcomes and reduce costs. At the same time, healthcare organizations are attempting to serve a growing population of seniors and individuals with chronic illnesses through disease management, transition care and home care strategies. These approaches all require a new way of thinking about patient communication and care coordination – both areas where telemedicine can provide an effective solution.

As healthcare moves steadily toward these innovative delivery models, providers are being asked to share information with multiple other providers and communicate more frequently with patients in order to improve outcomes. In response, hospitals and health systems have been working diligently to build out the data infrastructure necessary for exchanging and managing this information. However, electronic health records (EHRs) can only provide a static picture of a patient’s health at any given interval of time. In contrast, the ability to efficiently share patient information and data through telemedicine can support true real-time collaboration.

Using this approach, care contributors can all quickly build consensus for diagnoses and treatment plans. A prime example of telemedicine’s potential can be seen in its recent application for transitions of care.

Transition care typically includes both patient education and medication management components to help ease the transition from hospital to residential facilities and reduce readmissions. While face-to-face communication is ideal, it is often impractical.

Telemedicine provides a quick, convenient and more affordable forum for assessing patient recovery, assisting with medication management and keeping patients on track with discharge instructions. Advanced high-definition video capabilities can also help clinicians document key indicators of recovery and conduct demonstrations for self-care or physical therapy techniques.

In many cases, the individuals with the greatest insight into a patient’s condition are their own loved ones. By extending communication to family members and caregivers through telemedicine, providers can improve their understanding of a patient’s health status, increase treatment compliance and improve patient education. For patients, this extended communication can provide an added sense of social support and improve their satisfaction and engagement in the treatment process.

As healthcare delivery becomes more highly specialized and the shortage of qualified providers continues, telemedicine also provides a delivery model for optimizing the use of skilled care providers. We expect to see health systems and hospitals embrace this approach to care delivery to better use their own internal staff for care coordination and support as well as collaborate with other provider organizations. This approach is efficient, cost effective and will have a profound impact in population health management as it scales.

The healthcare industry and federal government have been quick to realize the potential of telemedicine in supporting new models for the delivery of coordinated care. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) specifically calls out telemedicine as an essential component in the development of ACOs.

A handful of the 32 ACOs approved by the federal government have already begun launching telemedicine programs as part of their collaborative care efforts, including Texas-based Seton Health Alliance. Its Nurse Navigator program uses a telemedicine-based platform to help clinical staff communicate with patients and coordinate care among multiple specialists and providers. Patients benefit from assistance with medication management and information about their treatment plans in a personalized, “face-to-face” forum.

Today’s advanced telemedicine systems can incorporate a variety of mobile workstations equipped with software, high-definition video and user-friendly interfaces. Just as this technology has advanced in recent decades, telemedicine’s potential has also grown exponentially. Far from being just a platform to connect doctors and patients who are geographically distant, telemedicine can now help providers deliver coordinated, high-tech, high-quality care to any patient in need.

Kevin J. Boyle is business leader for the telemedicine team at Rubbermaid Medical Solutions in Huntersville, N.C. For more on Rubbermaid Medical Solutions: click here.

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