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Digital Health and the Influence on Healthcare: Wearables, Telehealth, & Treatment

Things are looking up in the world of digital health at least this was the view from “Digital Health and the Influence on Healthcare: Wearables, Telehealth, & Treatment.” The WBBA held their last event of the season with a panel on digital health, hosted by Russell Benaroya, CEO of Everymove, and featuring Dr. John Scott, Director of Telemedicine at UW Medicine, Davide Vigano CEO and co-founder of Sensoria, Mike Blume, independent healthcare consultant, and myself. I’d characterize the overall event as being optimistic and realistic, both from the panel and the attendees.

Digital health event

It was a dark and stormy night

No one said that the road to digital health was easy or fast, but the consensus that things like moving to the cloud, and the acceptance and adoption of patient-driven digital care is reaching a turning point.

Both Sensoria and Wellpepper’s business models are made possible by the cloud. For Sensoria this was the ability to process millions of datapoints coming from their wearable technology. For Wellpepper, this is our ability to rapidly implement solutions working with department heads facing a particular challenge in patient engagement and outcome tracking and improvement. Dr. Scott remarked on the dramatic drop in the cost of telemedicine solutions over the years he’s been an advocate and solutions due to both Moore’s Law and cloud computing over his tenure running telemedicine at UW.

Sensoria's Quantified Socks

Sensoria’s Quantified Socks

As well, although Dr. Scott highlighted how telemedicine was limited by arcane reimbursement models that did not allow for patients to receive telemedicine consults in their homes, he and other panelists discussed that they were not waiting for billing codes to do the right things in using technology to deliver better care. As usual, the Affordable Care Act was seen as a big driver as patient-centered and digital care.

Possibly because there were two ex-Microsoftees on the panel (Davide and me) a cloud-based platform approach was touted as the best way to both collect, analyze, and sort the data that came in directly from patients. In the case of Sensoria and Davide, this was to look for trends and patterns coming from sensor-integrated clothing, and in the case of Wellpepper it was to collect patient outcomes in the context of care and compare these across patients, procedures, and healthcare organizations.

This view led to a discussion about the proliferation of data, and everyone agreed that digital health has the ability to overwhelm health systems with data that they are currently not prepared for. EMRs are not set up to include sensor or patient-reported data, and as Dr. Scott pointed out, physicians are not looking for every data point on a patient, only the anomalies, like glucose out of range.

One audience member asked about whether healthcare organizations had an overall data strategy, and whether digital health data should be collected as part of that. It’s an interesting idea to consider but it seems like it’s still a long way off in healthcare. Does your organization or CIO have an overall data strategy? It seems that quality measures and the need for patient reported outcomes are introducing new requirements for data, but this is at the departmental or initiative level. Grappling with questions like this will be important as connected devices, digital, health, and patient reported outcomes enter the mainstream.

Posted in: Health Regulations, Healthcare Disruption, Healthcare Policy, Healthcare Research, Healthcare Technology, Healthcare transformation, M-health, Outcomes, Telemedicine

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Dispatches from the 2014 American Telemedicine Association Conference

BaltimoreWe just returned from the 19th annual American Telemedicine Conference in Baltimore, MD. It was an amazing opportunity to network, meet telemedicine pioneers, and get energized about the opportunities to improve patient care. While there are still some major barriers to care, first in the way of billing codes and second in the way of cross-state licensing, speakers were confident that these legislative issues will be solved for a number of reasons: telemedicine is effective, it’s what patients want, and it can improve access to care and decrease costs.

Telehealth in Practice: Chronic Disease Management

Similar to what we’re seeing in all healthcare, a one-size fits all approach does not work when it comes to telehealth either. For some patients it works extremely well, and for some even the most rudimentary telehealth (i.e. phone calls) doesn’t work. We heard many discussions about green, yellow, and red patients. Green are those that are able to take care of themselves and their recovery. Yellow are those that have some risk, particularly of hospital readmissions. Red are those who are a definite readmissions risk. While Red patients often cost the most money, they may not be the best candidates for the cost savings of telehealth. One speaker pointed out that the most challenging of “red” patients often move without notice or have their phones cut off which makes even the simplest intervention, either a phone call or a house call impossible. This speaker suggested that while the healthcare system needs to figure out a solution for these patients, they are often used as examples of why telemedicine doesn’t work. Using this as the standard will definitely set us up for failure as the benefits for those green and yellow patients are real.

Congestive Heart Failure is the number 1 reason for hospital readmissions, and not-surprisingly a number of sessions dealt with follow-up care for this population. As well, repeated CHF readmissions also lead to long-term mortality. In practice ensuring follow-up visits reduced readmissions, however, in-person follow up visits are both expensive and inconvenient for patients. Carolinas Healthcare Systems started a telehealth follow-up program for CHF in June of last year, and are already seeing results for their Heart Success Virtual Clinic. First, patients have been saved over 3,900 miles and 380 hours of travel. Second, the follow-up rate for virtual visits is >95% compared to 70% at the in-person clinic, and the no-show rate is 3% compared to 10%. Telehealth visits are more convenient and as one speaker pointed out “it’s hard to miss a visit that’s in your house” so no-shows decreased as well. While the study hasn’t been completed yet, they are expecting a 50% decrease in readmissions for the patients that are participating in telehealth visits.photo 2

The University of Arkansas Center for Distance Health also saw positive results for CHF by using a call center to manage 30-day post-discharge follow-up coupled with an EMR. While on the phone with the patient, an RN verifies whether the patient has been seen by a nutritionist, is on a special diet, is managing fluid intake, has been in touch with a patient educator, and has scheduled a 1-week follow up appointment. Patients were instructed to call the hotline with any questions, concerns, or worsening symptoms. During the pilot from May-July of 2013 the program saw a 31% decline in readmissions resulting in $60,000 in cost savings to the organization (this did not include the costs of any Medicare fines). When the program was rolled-out to the entire patient population in Q1 of 2014, 34 readmissions were prevented with a total cost savings of $418,000.

Other examples from the conference involved care team and peer support for patients. A bariatric program run by DPS Health included patient discussion groups that were moderated by healthcare professionals. Moderators were present to guide the discussion and ensure that patient questions were answered, but they did this by prompting patients to answer each other’s questions rather than having the moderator jump in. This peer support helped participants achieve an average weight loss of 4-5%.

Sensors and Information Overload

It seems that the greatest promise for telemedicine though comes at the convergence of patient self-care, collaborative team care, and access to information, and patient provider communication. Patients can take more responsibility for their care outside the clinic using monitoring, apps, and sensors. However, the best results were seen when those patients were able to communicate remotely with healthcare professionals, and when those healthcare professionals also had access to information. However, none of this should come at the expense of care. While sensors were a hot topic, tools must be developed to help healthcare professionals deal with the influx of data. They need to be able to triage the information and get to the relevant and actionable information. One physician said that we don’t have a primary care physician shortage, but due to the extraordinary demands of documentation, we do have a shortage of physician time. Trackers and sensors should not increase this burden if they want to have an impact on care.

At the conference we saw sensors for just about everything, including a few questionable brain scanners. The sizes of scanners ranged from ankle bracelets to band-aids, and from flashy consumer designs to highly clinical. One speaker was adamant that disposable sensors are the future, citing the “razor/razor blade” model. While disposable are appealing in that they are usually designed to be worn under clothes and are small, we’re not sure about the analogy as the software that comes with sensors is usually free. However, given the number of FitBits we’ve had to replace at Wellpepper due to loss, the idea of a cheap disposable sensor is highly appealing.

What Patients Want

We’ve know since we founded Wellpepper that patients want information, convenience, and access to support from healthcare providers everywhere. It was heartening to see this echoed throughout the conference. Perhaps the most interesting was the data presented by Carena on what happened when a major employer in Seattle moved to a high deductible plan: the total number of PCP visits decreased 52% and the remaining shifted to telehealth. If this doesn’t prove without a doubt that patients are cost-conscious consumers, we’re not sure what does, especially since we happen to know that major employer pays pretty well. It also probably shows that if services are unlimited, people will overuse them.

This was really just a small glimpse of an extremely busy conference. On the one hand, it’s heartening to see all the passion about change, however, it’s also sobering to realize that this was the 19th year for this conference, and yet we still are debating the merits of telehealth, and some states do not allow telehealth. Hopefully though between patient demand, increased access to technology, and the need to reevaluate both the costs of care and how to support population health, this will change.

We will definitely see you next year at ATA 2015, and are looking forward to see how small the sensors have become and how much more ubiquitous telemedicine has become.

Posted in: Health Regulations, Healthcare Disruption, Healthcare Technology, M-health, Telemedicine

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