Telehealth poised to take center stage nationwide, experts say

VA uses telehealth to prevent suicide
By Diana Manos
12:00 AM

Telehealth used to be something few people knew about, or understood. Today, it is fast taking its place as a major aspect of healthcare, according to experts at the National eHealth Collaborative's Technology Crossroads Conference in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 27.

Peter Levin, chief technology officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), said the VA has recently used telehealth to focus on mental healthcare. Since last July, the VA has used instant messaging in a suicide prevention program to keep 6,000 vets online until help could arrive. 

The VA is also focusing the use of telemedicine on oncology follow-up care. Ultimately, it's about a patient's peace of mind, said Levin. "That's why we do what we do."

According to Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), telemedicine is growing by leaps and bounds, and is poised for double its current use in the next few years.

When Linkous began working in telehealth in 1993, stakeholders would say, "Any day now, telehealth will turn the corner." But, "The corner has come and gone, and we never even noticed," he said. "Telehealth is a mature industry now. "The time is right," for telehealth to grow, Linkous added. "Over the next year, you are going to see some very important people joining the telehealth bandwagon."

Telehealth used to be only an emphasis in rural areas, where it is critical to care. But now, it is on the radar of healthcare CEOs in all parts of the country, Linkous said. 

Telehealth has also attracted the interest of payers. In the next two years, several major healthcare payers will be making "some interesting announcements" about telehealth, he said. 

According to Linkous, 200,000 patients nationwide use remote monitoring. It is used to monitor one million cardiac patients a year, and has provided 400,000 virtual visits this year to mental health patients, via Skype. 

Eighty percent of patients being treated for neurological diseases are currently monitored outside of a hospital, Linkous said. Almost every major neurologic healthcare organization is "on board."

"This is a real industry, making real money," he said. "It's an exciting time to be in telemedicine, and I thought it was back in '93."

Chuck Parker, executive director of Continua Health Alliance said the greatest benefit derived from telehealth is using it to keep people well and out of the doctor's office in the first place. Meaningful use Stage 3 should be a great help in moving this toward a reality, he added.