Telehealth holds promise for alleviating primary care crunch

The current shortage of primary care physicians in America may only get worse when health insurance reform brings some 32 million newly insured patients into the mix by 2014. Some, including FierceHealthcare editor Sandra Yin, believe telehealth technologies hold promise for alleviating the upcoming crunch.

Other countries--India, for one--and our own U.S. military have turned to telemedicine and telehealth to improve access to care.

"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," Yin writes, paraphrasing GE Healthcare's Michael Lewis, who spoke at a "telework" conference mostly for government employees last week.

Lewis pointed out that video teleconferencing has become standard operating procedure in conducting mental health assessments of American soldiers returning from overseas duty. But he--and Yin--seem most excited about the mobile aspect of telehealth, namely remote patient monitoring. "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," Yin writes in her "Editor's Corner" column.

As is so often the case in healthcare, the No. 1 challenge facing telemedicine growth is not the technology itself, but prevailing attitudes. "Our biggest challenge is people," Lewis said. Yin notes that telemedicine isn't often taught in medical school, with the notable exception of radiology. Writes Yin, "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."

For more:
- check out Yin's FierceHealthcare commentary