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MaineHealth closing down its eICU for lack of reimbursement

MaineHealth announced the closing of its VitalNetwork electronic intensive care unit (eICU) program, effective Oct. 1. The critical care remote monitoring system was used by nine Maine hospitals. The closure of the program was due in part to the fact that the participating facilities did not receive reimbursement payments.

Created in 2005, the eICU was designed to electronically keep, observe and record the medical data of patients in intensive or critical care. Patient information was sent to a command center staffed by nurses and physicians.

Telemedicine, a more general term under which eICU’s fall, has been more widely adopted and received more support than eICU programs. A bill introduced by the U.S. House of Representatives called the Telehealth Promotion Act of 2012 seeks to increase federal support of telehealth. It calls for increases funding, stating “no [medical] benefit covered shall be excluded solely because it is furnished via a telecommunications system. CMS will, in cases of some rural patients, reimburse providers for telemedicine services, but it’s been difficult for backers of the technology to find widespread reimbursement.

Reimbursement payments are often cited as the last roadblock to widespread telemedicine adoption. A recent study by InMedica estimated that 1.8 million patients will be treated via telemedicine by 2017, an increase from the 308,000 patients who were remotely monitored in 2012. The study separated telehealth incidents that occurred in ambulatory settings (80,000 instances in 2012) and those that happened in post-acute care settings (140,000). Theo Ahadome, senior analyst at InMedica, noted the possibilies for the expansion of telehealth saying, “A major challenge for telehealth is to reach the wider population of ambulatory care patients.” Programs such as accountable care organizations paying for better population health management may create telemedicine opportunities, as physicians strive to check in with patients – especially those with chronic diseases – between office visits.

Some telemedicine clinics have cropped up, funding themselves by reducing the workloads of primary care physicians. Franciscan Health Health System in Tacoma, Wash. has outsourced off-hours care to telemedicine provider Carena, Inc. This practice reduces the number of unneeded and costly emergency room visits. Only time will tell if telemedicine will expand further and replace the traditional face-to-face patient visits with a videoconference – but clearly, payers must increase reimbursements for initiatives like MaineHealth’s eICU to survive.

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