SAN JOSE, CA – Incoming American Telemedicine Association president and CIO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Stewart Ferguson is a health IT stalwart. Previously, he oversaw the Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network (AFHCAN), Alaska’s largest telehealth project, which comprises 248 remote site deployments. AFCHAN conducts more than 33,000 telemedicine encounters yearly.
Dressed to the nines in a kilt, opening for keynote speaker and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at ATA’s annual meeting, Ferguson compared the telehealth access AFHCAN offers to in-person access in U.S. major urban centers: Boston offers the longest wait time to get an appointment in-person with a specialist, averaging more than 40 days. In contrast, four hours is on the long side to see a specialist via a telemedicine encounter in Alaska, he said, with 30% done in 60 minutes and 60% within four hours.
This despite grueling winters that shut off whole communities from the outside world for weeks at a time – and polar bears running wild in the streets that sometimes drive a town’s inhabitants indoors until they pass through.
“One of the things that’s very interesting to me is that we are able to provide a level of service using telehealth that we cannot achieve without telehealth,” Ferguson told the crowd assembled at San Jose Civic Auditorium, the historic venue in which the Rolling Stones debuted “Satisfaction” on stage, and Wozniak later admitted he watched roller derby matches as a kid. “I would challenge you to go to a major metropolitan area and get a specialty consult from your primary care physician in 60 minutes or less. The point is that telehealth, from my perspective, is not just as good as in-person. It can, in fact, be better.”
Ferguson’s point: Telemedicine shouldn’t just be for underserved populations in remote areas, although he’s got the stats to prove it works – it should be integrated into the mainstream as a way to offset difficulties throughout the U.S. health care system.
He acknowledged that most hospitals — challenged right now with adopting meaningful use, ICD-10, accountable care and other IT-intensive projects – don’t have the resources to take on telehealth projects. But they need to.
“I don’t believe the health system can just keep on doing what it’s doing, and make it,” Ferguson said. “I believe, with the changes that are going on right now, that telehealth is perfectly positioned to be a part of a more efficient health care system.”