Telemedicine technologies are evolving rapidly, enabling better care, greater patient access and the promise of bending the healthcare cost curve. Telemedicine has evolved dramatically over the past few years, and providers have come to realize the profound ways in which it can improve patient care. With this evolution has also come the increasing sophistication of telemedicine practitioners. Doctors, nurses and administrators now desire easier integration, clinical adaptability and configurability, support for multiple specialties on a single comprehensive platform, and robust data collection and analytics.
REACH Health, a leading provider of enterprise telemedicine solutions, has identified five key technology trends for the coming year, each promising benefits for providers and patients. These trends for 2016 include:
Obsolescence of Proprietary Hardware and Networks: Although proprietary hardware and networks were standard in the early generations of telemedicine technology, healthcare providers now desire affordable, flexible solutions. Effective telemedicine programs are increasingly powered by off-the-shelf PC components, standard, low-cost cameras and emerging networking standards such as WebRTC. These open, standardized products allow providers to choose the most appropriate end-point for the clinical need; whether it be a high performance cart, a PC or a mobile device such as an iPad, Android or Surface tablet. Providers also now increasingly seek specialty-specific telemedicine software applications that are deployable across these commodity hardware devices using open networks.
The Rise of the Software Platform: Healthcare systems now seek enterprise-wide telemedicine solutions that can be scaled to support multiple service lines and a variety of delivery models, all on one common platform. Just as single-function “dumb phones” have been rendered obsolete by multi-purpose “smart phones,” providers want a single platform to accommodate all their telemedicine needs. They expect a simple, effective solution that supports varied telemedicine requirements across the continuum of care and works wherever it is needed, on a variety of devices. These platforms must also be designed with an open architecture, providing the ease of plug-and-play connectivity with specialized, interoperable components such as high quality peripherals.
Guest post by Grant Kohler, vice president, Innovation and co-founder, REACH Health.
I began my healthcare career in the hospital setting. While working at Georgia Regents University (formally the Medical College of Georgia), my colleagues and I developed one of the nation’s first telestroke systems. It was rudimentary at first, literally pieced together on an IV pole from existing equipment: web-enabled video cameras, flatbed scanners for CT scans and spare CPUs, with a landline telephone to provide audio. Since then, I’ve worked with many facilities across the country to set up telemedicine platforms. Over that time, I’ve witnessed a variety of approaches to telemedicine.
One major transformation I’ve witnessed more recently: Many hospital systems are now choosing software-based platforms over hardware-based technologies. As I’ll explain shortly, this shift in thinking has important implications worth considering.
Core Technology: Software vs. Hardware
Telemedicine platforms are evolving rapidly with no signs of slowing. It is prudent to ensure that your hospital is in a position to take advantage of the rapid pace of improvements without being locked into a solution that hinders or prevents future technological enhancements or program expansion.
To appreciate the difference between focusing on software vs. hardware, consider the evolution of mobile phones. In 2007, the first smartphone was introduced. At the time, flip phones were considered leading edge. Less than five years later, flip phones were deemed antiquated by most. Why? The cell phone is a hardware-centric device and the smartphone is a software-centric device.
In the telemedicine industry, first-generation solutions such as tele-presence carts and robots began as single-function, hardware-centric devices. Even if they work satisfactorily for their narrow purpose, they lack the flexibility needed to support cost-effective upgrades and expansion for multiple service lines. Also, because the hardware is proprietary, it often isn’t subject to commoditization and is priced at a premium. As telemedicine technologies have evolved, software-centric platforms have become available and offer increased flexibility, including new capabilities and multiple endpoint options.
Support for Creating a Telemedicine Network – Thinking about the Subscribers
The literal goal of telemedicine is to create networks where provider hospitals offer specialty care or expertise to subscribing hospitals. Successful execution produces improved outcomes and patient satisfaction for a larger number of patients and creates economic benefits for both the provider and subscriber hospitals.
Your telemedicine platform can impact your ability to recruit hospitals into your network. In competitive markets where other provider hospitals are vying for the same potential subscribers, a well-designed telemedicine platform provides a recruiting advantage. If a large hospital balks at expensive hardware investments that easily become dated, a smaller hospital will have similar concerns but a tinier budget. Hospitals of all sizes seek to leverage maximum utility out of all investments with a minimal disruption to existing processes and workflows. With hardware-centric platforms, the inherent focus is often on the technology itself rather than the patient. This is unpalatable for most hospitals considering telemedicine, as their primary objective is better patient care.