If necessity is the mother of invention, then it should be no surprise the innovative world of computer science and technology is being harnessed to help bring down health care costs.
Telehealth – or remote patient monitoring – refers to when medical experts use a digital network (like the internet or telephone lines) to provide automated monitoring and treatment delivery to a patient who is in a different physical location. This can range from email messages of basic care instructions to remote robotic surgery.
The use of telehealth is expanding most rapidly in the area of home health care, where chronically ill patients like diabetics can submit their blood sugar test results from home and video conference with their doctor. Doctors are thus able to more easily provide maintenance care to patients, lowering the likelihood their illness will progress to expensive emergency status.
Some doctors even see the benefits of telehealth with monitoring the mildly ill, and treat minor sniffles and bruises through secure web sites and online messaging. More importantly, Aetna, the nation’s largest insurer, and Cigna Corp. have agreed to start reimbursing doctors for these “e-visits.” Other insurers are expected to follow. In this case, everybody wins: doctors get paid for dispensing preventive care, patients have faster and more convenient access to physicians, and employers see a 50% reduction in calling off sick. The best systems also allow for more administrative efficiency in scheduling appointments, filling prescriptions, making referrals, and conveying test results. All this cuts costs.
Telehealth is also useful for managing the critically ill. Hospital Intensive Care Unit beds have increased 20% in the last decade, but there has not been a similar rise in the amount of specialists able to work nights and weekends to treat the patients in those beds. Some hospitals are seeking the proper ICU doctor to patient ratio, which can reduce those patients’ chances of dying by up to 30%, through the creation of “eICUs.” These facilities allow intensive care doctors to monitor by video ICU patients hospitalized elsewhere.
A recent study by the Advanced Medical Technology Association found a huge decline in hospital visits and prescription use, and better health results, when patients with congestive heart failure or severe respiratory illness received tele-homecare. In Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest employers is teaming up with an insurer and an information management company to see if being able to frequently monitor employees‘ high blood pressure online will improve their health and lower company costs.