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Broadband Internet Has Led To Advances Like Health IT

Broadband Internet Has Led To Advances Like Health IT

Posted February 1st, 2010 by Joel White

While the health care debate in Washington starts and stops, there are institutions and individuals who are taking it upon themselves to make use of modern, widely available technology to cut health care costs while improving services to patients.  Additional incentives to adopt and use telehealth should be coupled with broadband expansion to ensure the technology is used effectively and safely.

The development of what some are calling “Telehealth” is making a major contribution to the wellness of patients and to the greater efficiency of health care providers.   A recent article in The Baltimore Sun focused on this issue and on the work that major organizations like the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins are doing to bring health care to patients, and patients to health care providers using broadband access to the Internet.

Telehealth is more than simply sitting a patient in front of a web cam to chat with his or her doctor via a  broadband connection.  According to the Sun article by Gus Sentementes, hardware can include electronic patient record systems, digital diagnostic equipment, video monitors, and cameras.

In some locations patients can have their blood pressure, glucose levels, heart rate, oxygen uptake and other standard vital signs automatically transmitted to their doctor without having to, as one patient put it, “drive 45 minutes to an hour” to get to their doctor for what may be a routine checkup.

On the acute end of the scale, health IT can allow a doctor and their patient in a rural area to gain access to specialists at a major medical center hundreds of miles away – stabilizing a patient who otherwise might have died due to lack of access to the expertise.  In such a case much of the follow-up care can be done using telehealth, saving patients hours of travel and waiting, as well as saving them the discomfort – physical and emotional – which often goes along with a long trip to a major hospital center.

According to one major insurance company which is promoting this technology, health IT is not designed to come between a patient and his or her primary physician, but instead “it is meant to hook them up quickly to specialized care which otherwise might be difficult, if not impossible, to find in a rural location.”   As one physician told me, the technology brings the doctor to the patient, the experience to the need.  What a refreshing concept!

This is not simply a convenience issue.  Use of telemedicine for stroke patients – telestroke – can mean the difference between life and death.  Transmission of vital signs and other data after a patient is picked up in an ambulance alerts emergency physicians to particular needs of the stroke victim before he is even at the hospital.  For some patients, experts link into surgeons or neurologists to diagnose clots or abnormalities to determine the best course of care before potentially deadly surgery is initiated.

The payoff is even better.  Not only is care often improved, but telemedicine helps lower costs.
The Department of Veterans Affairs studied this issue in their report, “Care Coordination/Home Telehealth:  The Systemic Implementation of Health Informatics, Home Telehealth and DM to support the Coordination of Veteran Patients with Chronic Conditions.”  The VA found that implementing telehealth to coordinate patient care led to a 25 percent reduction in the number of bed days and a 20 percent reduction in hospital admissions.  The report showed a cost of $1,600 per patient per annum for the telehealth program compared to $13,121 for primary care and $77,745 for nursing home care.

According to a Rand Corporation study, robust health IT adoption and use holds the promise of saving $81 billion annually in physician and facility efficiencies, in administrative tasks, and in making early detection and treatment more likely.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has suggested that greater utilization of health IT can reduce the more than 100,000 deaths each year caused by medical errors and cut health care costs overall by as much as 30 percent.

All of this is possible because of the reach and speed of broadband in America.  Major providers have continued to invest in their networks that have begun to open the door to advances like health IT or telehealth which have a growing, positive impact on Americans where ever they may live.

Joel White is the Executive Director of the Health IT Now Coalition

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