Modern medicine: How tech will transform healthcare delivery

Aug 12, 2009

Mobile devices and new wireless networks will change the way we get well.

By Richard P. Nespola, chairman and CEO, TMNG Global

Inside her living room, a mother captures her autistic child’s latest behavior on video using her mobile device and sends it to a team of behavior specialists for assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

A radiologist e-mails fresh X-rays of an injured All-American tight end to a sports trainer. Minutes later the trainer views the images through an application on his smartphone and informs the head coach that the star athlete can indeed make it to the playoffs in two weeks.

A family from a rural community in Iowa receives medical consultation and treatment from a specialist in a Chicago hospital 200 miles away via videoconferencing.

These scenarios share a common thread: mHealth – emerging mobile health systems that enable healthcare providers to remotely attend to the needs of patients for little cost. Mobile health systems support fast, easy, scalable and efficient care. Thanks to the technological advancements in wireless broadband -- so-called “4G” standards such as WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE) -- , patient care is as easy as a few taps on a smartphone. <!-- more -->

The adoption of “virtual visits” is already reducing emergency room admissions, hospitalizations and related out-of-pocket patient costs. Telemedicine includes virtual training, mentoring and collaboration among healthcare professionals, remote patient monitoring and electronic medical records filing, access and sharing.

Strong demand for medical apps

Research shows the top five wireless applications for healthcare are:

  1. Appointment scheduling
  2. Patient information
  3. Patient tracking
  4. Patient records
  5.  Patient monitoring

As telemedicine continues to evolve and applications of these long-range technologies become more complex, so does the debate on clinical and technical standards, information security, bandwidth availability, hardware subsidies and Medicare and insurance reimbursements.

The confluence of healthcare and technology is certainly not new. But today, more than ever, how these two industries can be brought together to solve one of this country’s greatest fundamental issues remains to be determined.

Enter the Federal Government. Sheer political will driving new legislation on healthcare reform increased the impetus and incentive to innovate through technology to address the needs of the unserved and the underserved.

Can technology curb healthcare costs?

There is a general consensus from outside and inside the government that healthcare will bankrupt the American economy and the middle class if costs continue to skyrocket.

Technology can be leveraged to help curtail those rising costs. To make that happen, the Obama Administration has pledged an investment of $10 billion a year over the next five years to encourage "broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems."

This call-to-action for technology innovation has sparked a widespread response from telecommunications companies, manufacturers, vertical specialist solution providers and mobile associations who are all working at a furious pace to bring about this technological – and social – change. Their efforts will not only help to solve this country’s health issues, but for consumers, these technological advancements will provide information anywhere, at any time, on any device.

As an example, industry group GSMA has initiated research across the entire mobile ecosystem – from the handset makers to application developers to the wireless operators and others - to explore solutions for the healthcare industry. Similarly, trade association CTIA recently hosted the “mHealth Solutions and Policy Forum” in Washington D.C. where leading medical and policy experts, representatives from Congress, the White House and the Center for Disease Control discussed wireless as a key component to solving the chronic care crisis and eradicating healthcare disparities in America.

This critical confluence of technology and the necessity to cut costs is what makes this opportunity so exciting for the autistic child about whose behavior the specialists are conferring from points across the globe.

As mHealth and other solutions become more widely available and adopted, telecommunications companies, equipment and device manufacturers and content providers will have to consider five driving enablers that can help shape the future of telemedicine:

  • Standards
  • Ecosystems
  • Devices
  • Applications
  • Pricing

More dialogue to understand industry trends, to interpret and execute government regulatory policies, and to ensure that patient needs are met is imperative. For example, the dialogue on Pricing will be critical and federally-funded programs will need to be monitored closely to determine which pricing model works best. To that end, federal funding initiatives can help drive down costs incurred by doctors and patients by offering device subsidies in rural areas and finding ways to off-set the capital costs of hospitals adopting telehealth services.

Yet if the government considered subsidizing carriers’ smartphone costs – the savings to consumers might be even more substantial – making life easier for the family in rural Iowa.

Nespola is chairman and CEO of
TMNG Global
, an Overland Park, Kan.-based provider of professional services to the communications and media industries.

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