At opening plenary, ATA speakers tout growth and change

By Mike Miliard
07:55 PM

At the ATA 2011 opening plenary Sunday afternoon, American Telemedicine Association President Dale Alverson, MD, gave a powerful opening speech that emphasized how a "perfect storm" of factors has set the stage for fundamental transformation of care healthcare delivery. "This is a time for telemedicine," he said.

Healthcare reform may be controversial, he said, but one aspect of it is not: with costs spiraling ever upward, "we must look at new ways of providing care."

In the midst of an economic downturn, with an aging population about to further tax a healthcare system already suffering from a critical shortage of providers, Alverson said it is telemedicine's opportunity to harness IT tools such as electronic health records, health information exchanges – and, of course, rapidly advancing communication technologies – to help meet those tests.

"The world is changing," he said. "It time for us to navigate" through those challenges.

[See also: ATA's international delegates display global power of telemedicine.]

And it's through the convergence of health information technology – with EHRs, HIEs, imaging, remote monitoring and video conferencing "all being combined in an integrated, more seamless manner" – that that will happen.

Those technologies, combined with an ever-expanding galaxy of mobile devices and mHealth tools, are helping to "add value in ways we never dreamed of," said Alverson.

In addition to the challenges of the U.S. healthcare system, the constant threat of natural disasters worldwide, and of potential global pandemics, makes the need for that value to be realized and acted upon clear, he said.

"We are all citizens of the world," said Alverson. "We need to work together. And the reason we need to do that is that most health issues are global. And we can share knowledge and information in meaningful ways that you couldn't before."

That helps people "rise above the politics, rise above the misunderstanding," said Alverson – enabling a form of "health diplomacy." Telemedicine, he said, is key to helping "address the health issues of the global community."

In keeping with the international theme, A. Stewart Ferguson, PhD, vice president (soon to be president-elect) of ATA , arrived on stage next, attired in a natty Scottish kilt.

He lauded the ATA 2011 as "the largest gathering ever of people devoted to telehealth."

And with ever-increasing adoption rates, healthy sales of products and services and an uptick in government support, Ferguson said, telehealth continues to grow. This year's ATA conference expects to welcome more than 3,500 attendees – "the largest and best conference we have ever had."

Why? Because "telemedicine works," he said. "And it's becoming a central element in the future of healthcare."

Fittingly, next up was a recognition of some of the people who are helping make that happen. The following ATA 2011 awards were presented:

ATA President's Award for the Advancement of Telemedicine – Individual
Award, supported by The Global Telemedicine Group, was presented to Dena Puskin, ScD, senior advisor, health IT and telehealth policy, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md.

ATA President's Award for the Advancement of Telemedicine – Institutional
Award, supported by AMD Global Telemedicine, Inc., was presented to University of Arkansas for Medical Science in Little Rock, Ark.

ATA President's Award for the Advancement of Telemedicine – Innovation
Award, supported by InTouch Health, was presented to two co-winners, who were recognized for innovations in the automated detection of diabetic retinopathy: Hubble Telemedical in Nashville, Tenn. and Michael D. Abramoff, MD, PhD, associate professor of Ophthalmology at University of Iowa Health Care in Iowa City, Iowa.

ATA Industry Council Award, supported by ViTel Net, was presented to Alice Borrelli, director of global health and workforce policy at Intel Corporation.

Special Interest Group & Chapter Achievement Award, supported by AT&T, was presented to the ATA Telehealth Nursing Special Interest Group.

The ceremony also saw the induction of the 2011 ATA College of Fellows: Anne Burdick, MD, MPH, from University of Miami TeleHealth; Sam Burgiss, PhD, from University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine; William England, PhD, JD, from Universal Service Administration Company; Ronald Merrell, MD, FACS, from Virginia Commonwealth University; Steven R. Normandin of AMD Global Telemedicine, Inc.; Mark VanderWerf of Nonin Medical; and Pamela Whitten, PhD, of Michigan State University.

[See also: Telemedicine drives image sharing around the world.]

Capping off the plenary was a funny (and pun-filled) discussion between New York Times personal technology columnist, David Pogue, and Jitterbug founder Dr. Martin Cooper – otherwise known as the inventor of the modern mobile phone.

Hard to believe, but Pogue reminded us that it was nearly 40 year ago – April 3, 1973 – that Cooper stood on a New York City street corner and placed the first handheld cellular phone call.

Cell phones have advanced quite a bit since that call, which used a clunky device that weighed two-and-a-half pounds and featured a 20-minute battery life.

The pace has only accelerated in recent years. And thanks to that explosion of mobile phone technology, "people's lives have improved," said Cooper.

After all, "that is the role of the engineer … technology doesn't mean a thing unless it makes people's lives better."

Well-conceived mobile devices, "designed and optimized for everything that we do" are key to ensuring that upward trend continues, said Cooper. "People are mobile. They want to move around." It's natural then, that people worldwide have taken to mobile phones in such staggering numbers – and that the technology has "changed the way people do a lot of things."

Still, he insisted, despite all these light-year advances, the "industry is still in its infancy." The future – and a huge potential for telehealth – lies in "personalization and customization" around how individuals most prefer to use their devices.

"People's habits are focused on ways of doing things," said Cooper. Those habits are very hard to change. Sometimes it "takes a generation."

But at the forefront of that change for nearly 20 years, the ATA has made "wonderful strides" in advancing that evolution in the ways care is delivered – and in which people are empowered to take control of their own health.

And as that change takes root, he said, "the benefits are going to be enormous."