Could telemedicine help address primary-care shortages?

One of the big issues in healthcare, both here and abroad, is access. There simply aren't enough primary-care physicians to go around, and the shortage is projected to get worse.

"Healthcare has reached a tipping point," said Michael Lewis, vice president and general manager for GE Healthcare's government accounts division at a keynote speech today at a telework conference attended mostly by government workers. "It's time we took some swings at big issues."

He offered examples where GE Healthcare's telemedicine, or telehealth, is already making a difference. In India, which is home to 20 percent of the world's population and 60 percent of the world's heart disease, telemedicine helps give rural, underserved people access to doctors without living near them. The challenge of improving health outcomes ratchets up when you learn that 90 percent of the country's doctors live in cities, but 60 percent of the population lives in rural villages. Getting a patient to a doctor used to mean a long trip to a clinic. But when you place a small satellite in the village, you can send vital signs to a medical professional somewhere else who can interpret the information, Lewis said.

In a similar vein, telemedicine has helped enhance access for returning soliders in the U.S. All of them are supposed to undergo a mental evaluation upon their return. But it's often hard for them to travel many miles to see a doctor. To overcome the barrier distance posed, 500 video teleconferencing systems were deployed. Initially the doctors resisted performing remote psych evaluations, but eventually were won over by the quality of the video. It was important for them to see how patients reacted when they responded to questions, Lewis said.

Now remote mental assessments are part of standard operating procedure, according to Lewis. A returned soldier can go to a local clinic and be evaluated via teleconference by a doctor 250 miles away. The system has also been used for treatment, he said.

OK, so that last example sounded like it could have been a form of enhanced Skype. Maybe the screen was bigger and higher definition. This next example moves several steps beyond those medical alert buttons that connect a senior to a call center and emergency services.

Perhaps the most innovative technology, Lewis described methods for monitoring residents at nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Sensors in the wall detect unusual sleep patterns and abnormal activity, triggering an alarm. The sensors can also be installed in hospitals, which ultimately would cut operating costs, Lewis noted.

If you want to learn more about how telemedicine is revolutionizing healthcare delivery and you plan to be in Washington, D.C., for the 2010 mHealth Summit, check out FierceMobileHealth's executive breakfast, where you'll be able to get the scoop from a high-powered panel that includes insiders at the FCC and Veterans Administration.

So what's the biggest challenge facing those who want to accelerate the adoption of telemedicine? According to Lewis, it's not technology. "Our biggest challenge is people," he said. Outside of the more-established teleradiology, healthcare professionals haven't necessarily been taught how to do telemedicine in school. Now it's seeping into the curriculum, but decision management issues still need to be worked out, he said. Even so, Lewis seemed optimistic about telemedicine's future in the U.S. "I think it's coming," he said.

I hope he's right. - Sandra