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Jan 26 2012   9:47AM GMT

Virtualization and mobile health care: The new patient preference

Posted by: Jenny Laurello
mHealth, mobile health, UPMC, virtualization, Virtualization and cloud computing

During last month’s 3rd annual mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of hearing Andrew Watson, M.D., Medical Director for Pennsylvania’s Center for Connected Medicine, speak about health care virtualization and cloud utilization, or what he dubs as the greatest opportunity and transformation in health care that he has seen throughout his entire career.

After attending his session at the summit — and chewing on the stat that 90% of the time his patient population is not only open to the idea, but actually prefers to see him virtually — I wanted to follow up and dig into the issues a bit deeper. As a patient, I’ve always placed a great deal of value on all five senses being involved in a provider’s diagnosis, though if I could be convinced that care quality would not be sacrificed, then this might just be a bandwagon on which I can jump. 

Watson’s journey toward virtualization began in 2009, where he threw his entire practice into the cloud. Since then, his Pittsburgh-based practice at UPMC has been able to connect to facilities and communities sometimes more than two hours away, allowing him to see more than 170 patients virtually since the telemedicine program began. And with patient satisfaction scores at 95% for remote encounters, coupled with each patient saving an average of $110 per tele-encounter (when factoring in travel costs and time out of work), I can certainly see the allure.

In terms of the organizational cost savings, transcription is one such sub segment. Transcription time — writing, re-reading, editing — can be cut down tremendously by leveraging a virtual environment. At Watson’s practice, dictations are available within three minutes and anyone with secure access can review them. This can have a tremendous impact at larger enterprises, which can expect measurable increases in efficiency and cost savings simply from dictations.

Beyond cost savings and increased efficiency at both the patient and practice levels, Watson stressed that seeing his patients virtually is truly something that the patients themselves preferred. The toll that traveling can take on a chronically ill individual living in a rural community is, many times, enough for them to push off an appointment or deviate from a regular care plan altogether. This only further exacerbates the issue, reinforces disparities in care and will continue to drive up systemic costs in the future. It is a rural snowball effect, if you will.

Coming from a family of doctors, Watson reminded me of the long lost era of the home visit, where doctors used to deliver care and conduct visits literally from a patient’s bedside. It was the era of seeing your PCP when you needed, where you needed.  And in essence, bringing care to patients virtually is affording practitioners the ability to do the same thing, simply via a new medium.  Patients want to see who they want, when they want, and telemedicine allows for that flexibility, choice and even access to specialties that otherwise might not be available.

Watson noted that “for just pure humanism, virtualization is invaluable. It’s all about what the patient wants and the most important thing they want is geography. They care more about that than they do being close to their caregivers, and this surprised all of us. We never thought patients would say ‘I don’t care if I see you on a TV screen, I just don’t want to drive to see you.’ But without a doubt, they are saying that, and we are seeing this in droves at UPMC.”

In this clip from his session at the mHealth Summit, The Surgeon Can See You Now, Anywhere, the 4th generation surgeon dives into how he was able to successfully virtualize his clinical practice. Additionally, he shares his perspective on how the cloud revolution — mixed with the consumer health movement — makes this a truly unmatched and exciting time in connected health for patients and physicians alike.

Dr. Andrew Watson is the Medical Director for the Center for Connected Medicine in Pittsburgh.

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