From The Editor | April 8, 2011

Telehealth's Untapped Potential


By Ken Congdon, editor in chief, Health IT Outcomes

The U.S. healthcare system has undoubtedly gained heightened awareness of IT over the past few years. For example, government mandates are driving providers to adopt EHRs to improve operational efficiency and allow patient data to be easily shared among providers. However, a recent survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) and commissioned by the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) indicates that the healthcare industry might be ignoring a technology with an upside equal to (or more significant than) EHRs — telehealth.

Key Healthcare Concerns & Challenges
The survey summary titled, The Health of Nations: Perspectives from Global Leaders Reveal Untapped Opportunity, captured the perspectives of 100 senior healthcare leaders from 16 nations on the biggest challenges facing the healthcare industry and the best ways to address these issues. The top problems/challenges referenced by survey respondents were:

  • Uneven distribution of health professionals — 35.4%
  • Providing equitable access to health services — 34.4%
  • Not enough health professionals — 19.8%

The challenges referenced above have received a great deal of attention in the U.S. this year in the wake of healthcare reform. Reform will add nearly 32 million newly insured patients to the U.S. healthcare system and place added pressure on an already lean pool of clinicians to deliver healthcare services.

Telehealth Enables Next-Level Collaboration
While EHRs create an environment where patient data is more easily accessed and exchanged, they don't adequately address the challenges outlined above on their own. For example, most EHRs simply deliver data, and don't provide a sufficient means for healthcare professionals to communicate and collaborate with one another.

Sixty-five percent of survey respondents said that the efficient exchange of not only information, but also expertise, would be instrumental in effectively diagnosing and treating patients in the era of healthcare reform. Furthermore, they identified telehealth technologies as a promising solution to deliver both. For purposes of this survey, "telehealth" was positioned as a broad concept to denote new ways for health professionals to share information, work collaboratively, and deliver services using a wide range of information and communications technology.

Telehealth solutions can help remove the barriers to effective collaboration among healthcare professionals — whether those barriers are geographic, economic, regulatory, or cultural. The technology can also enable effective, in-person, multidisciplinary collaboration between all parties involved in a patient's care — which could prove to be a key element in the success of accountable care organizations (ACOs). For example, with telehealth technology, all of the healthcare professionals involved in the treatment of a patient can come together to evaluate, treat, and agree upon the best care plan. All are able to engage the patient in a single clinical encounter and make decisions jointly.

A Clear Gap Between Potential & Adoption
While most of the survey respondents believed in the potential of telehealth to positively transform healthcare (only 4% of respondents said there was no compelling need to use telehealth), this potential hasn't translated to adoption. For example, only 4% rated telehealth as a "very common" practice for professional collaboration in today's healthcare system. The reasons for this chasm have been well documented and include unclear reimbursement policies and regulatory constraints for telehealth technologies.

Nations around the globe have invested in EHRs based on national mandates and funding. For example, England invested £13 billion in its National Program for IT, Hong Kong invested $200 million in its EHR infrastructure, and the U.S. is currently in the midst of a $32 billion initiative for EHR adoption. Perhaps an equal commitment and investment in telehealth is necessary to promote improved collaboration between patients and healthcare professionals going forward. It seems clear that this capability will be crucial to the future delivery of healthcare services.

Ken Congdon is Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes. He can be reached at