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Telehealth's opportunity gap: Between interest and implementation

Expanding existing technology in the health IT sphere is a welcomed concept; adopting that expansion is a whole other ballgame. That is the case with telehealth as it faces an uphill climb toward increased adoption. To explain this hurdle, Cisco Systems Inc. surveyed more than 100 government health officials — world health leaders who have influence on national health policy and budgets in their respective country. The results were disclosed at the World Health Congress earlier this month.

And the results were telling.

While health officials seem to champion the idea of telehealth, not many said their countries are active users of it. According to research conducted by Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group and Princeton Survey Research Associates International, a mere 4% of respondents said there is little need to use telehealth. On the other hand, sharing electronic patient data and images was deemed an important process by 65% of those surveyed, but only 9% said data exchange is commonly used. Cisco develops data exchange and workflow applications for the health care industry.

The survey also looked at the likelihood of national telehealth programs succeeding within a country. These programs, although some based on theoretical situations, helped display interest from an array of settings where telehealth could be implemented for health services. For example, during national challenges — natural disasters, war, famine and disease pandemics — 71% said being ready to quickly respond to victims is motive for enabling telehealth technology.

Additionally, fewer than 40% of respondents said telehealth would be a highly successful alternative in place of physical health facilities if they were full, and approximately 25% said it was fairly practical and nearly 40% said it’s not practical.

This equates to an opportunity gap between potential usage and actual implementation. Even with strong interest for information exchange using telehealth, current practice does not dictate a dire need for its technology.

In regards to the United States, the U.S. participants who participated in the survey noted four chief reasons why adoption of telehealth is slow to catch on:

  • Federal and private payers requiring in-person encounters for clinician reimbursement
  • The lack of large-scale pilots that demonstrate telehealth effectiveness
  • Reluctance among health care professionals to change workflow
  • Lack of technology funding

The findings showed that telehealth’s progression comes in waves. The first wave focuses on physician-to-physician collaboration for better patient care. “When health care leaders talk about the promise of telehealth, they are thinking more about professional-to-professional collaboration than they are about direct patient diagnosis and treatment, at least in the near term,” said Kaveh Safavi, vice president of Cisco IBSG Global Healthcare Practice in a statement to Telehealth, in this sense, is more of a platform for health professionals to communicate in making timelier decisions.

The second wave points toward patient care outside a traditional care facility. Clinical service to a patient at home is a driving force. This is of benefit to those suffering from chronic illnesses, too. The third wave consists of monitoring health symptoms despite patient location via telehealth-enabled remote monitoring.

Although it takes time to implement telehealth in any of these ways, the goal of cutting costs and improving health care solutions through telecommunications stands firm — a sentiment echoed by Frances Dare, director of IBSG Global Healthcare Practice. “When you think about telehealth it’s about connecting the people of healthcare to provide equitable access to quality care most efficiently,” he said in a news release.

Indeed, the potential for positive outcomes could drastically impact the health information exchange landscape. Until the opportunity gap is patched, however, telehealth’s full upside remains to be seen.

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