AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


Beyond TPA: Teleneurology for the Current Decade

Before the advent of therapeutic interventions in the field, the old joke about neurology was “diagnose and adios.” Neurologists were known for our abilities to locate exactly where in the nervous system a problem existed, communicate information to patients and physicians, and then move on. The lack of options for intervention was a vexing and frustrating problem.

Congress declared that the 1990s would be the “Decade of the Brain.” Perhaps because of this – or maybe in spite of it – the 90’s did see huge advances in treatments of many of brain diseases. Early on, the first effective therapy for multiple sclerosis was introduced, followed by several others. Suddenly, a once untreatable disease could be controlled in many cases. Likewise, the treatment of migraine was revolutionized by the development of triptans such as sumatriptan and rizatriptan that effectively aborted the headache without the terrible side effects of nausea or sedation common with previous medications. New seizure drugs arrived on the market that were more effective than their predecessors, with fewer side effects. Botulinum toxin proved to be a significant advance for many patients with movement disorders. More recently, the same treatment is effectively used for chronic headache.

In 1995, tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) was approved for the treatment of stroke. Finally, one of the most devastating neurological diseases could be addressed in a meaningful way with real outcome improvements. Thanks to the same medication used by cardiologists for many years for the treatment of heart attacks, hundreds of thousands of patients can now have improved outcomes after suffering a stroke.

Nevertheless, many patients with stroke don’t improve significantly after receiving this medication, in part because the clot inside an artery did not truly dissolve once the medication was given in the vein. To help solve this conundrum, the TPA could be given directly into the blocked artery by a catheter. Unfortunately, this all too frequently was either ineffective or resulted in life-threatening hemorrhages into the brain..

In cardiology, this same problem was essentially made moot by the technique of angioplasty, in which a balloon is inserted into the blocked artery and expanded, pushing open the artery. When the same technique is used in the brain, however, the artery often bursts, in part because the brain arteries lack the tough outer layer that helps ensure such rupture does not happen as often in the heart. Also, a surgeon can come behind a cardiologist and rescue the patient with an open-heart procedure – no such thing can be done in the brain. And so, approaching the new century, neurology was still, as it always had been, about 10 to 15 years behind cardiology. What to do?

The answer came in the form of a slightly different technique. The procedure still opens up the artery, but rather than pushing the artery open with a balloon, neurologiststake a similar catheter and simplyeither suck the thrombus (clot) up the tube, or snare it with a small cage and pull it out. Either method opens the artery to blood flow without actually having to press on it or traumatize it. This is called thrombectomy and is the newest and best treatment for severe strokes. Furthermore, it can be combined with intravenous TPA treatment at the outset, and together, the two achieve much better outcomes than IV TPA alone.

In order to do this procedure, the patient has to be seen at a state-of-the-art hospital with the appropriate equipment and personnel. Since there is a critical shortage of neurologists nationwide, the same problems facing patients who require TPA – little or no neurology consultation available in rural or underserved hospitals – are amplified; even fewer hospitals have the resources to provide both treatments in tandem.Once again, teleneurology can come to the rescue. Through teleneurology consultation, experienced neurologists can determine which patients are appropriate to transfer to an advanced stroke center. AcuteCare Telemedicine has been doing this successfully. Furthermore, as more neurologists graduate with training in the latest and most effective procedures, more patients will not only survive their strokes, but will be far less disabled from them. By the end of this decade, cardiology and neurology will stand on roughly equal footing in the treatment of heart and brain.

 



Looking Backwards to See Ahead – Part 3: Revenue & Sustainability

This is another in a series of blogs chronicling the development of AcuteCare Telemedicine (ACT). Much of this reflection involves lessons learned at 2011’s Annual Meeting of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). What follows is an amalgam of facts, experience and opinions culled from that fantastic symposium and honed by hindsight. Today’s blog will focus on telemedicine revenue and sustainability.

The business of medicine is a unique challenge for physicians used to focusing on clinical practice. Fee for service is now a relic in the changing healthcare landscape;  the days of physicians hanging up their “shingle” and watching patients flock to their doorstep are waning. An entrepreneurial spirit is required and is certainly not taught in medical school. A telemedicine startup may be costly in many ways. Besides “sweat equity,” it demands a large time investment dedicated to learning the marketplace, self-initiated marketing & sales, and direct client interaction. For doctors used to years of medical school, long residencies and fellowships, and 24+ hours of emergency call, this may be a natural investment. However, for long term sustainability, that patience must shift to the financial burden of expanding staff. An executive director, a sales force and marketing support are required, yet may not immediately lead to increased revenue. Balancing long term sustainability with short term revenue generation is the challenge.

Before taking the leap into the realm of venture capitalism, one must take a very critical look at economic realities. Healthcare delivery is changing, and ventures that offer reduced costs and improved outcomes, such as telestroke, are poised to grow exponentially – exactly what an investor is looking for. However, accepting capital early in business development may severely limit income if profit margins are small. That is, venture capitalists will expect a return on their investment regardless of your income. In contrast, investors may provide the guidance and experience not readily garnered from a career in medicine. Ultimately, pursuit of venture capital must meet a specific goal towards sustainability that is otherwise unattainable.

Other sources of revenue are available and should be investigated. Grants or other government funding help rural or safety net patients gain access to best possible care. For example, the state of California provided a $200 million grant to create a statewide broadband network resulting in an “eHealth Community.” They used telemedicine as a means towards a bigger goal of improved access, quality, and efficiency in underserved areas. Georgia Bill 144; The Distance Learning and Telemedicine Act of 1992, was the first mandate by any state for telemedicine. It led to development of the Georgia Partnership for Telehealth, a not-for-profit web of statewide access points based on strategic partnerships with successful existing telemedicine programs. Partnering with government and not-for-profits reduces overhead and increases client base for a telemedicine startup. In turn, the startup becomes their reliable source of clinical expertise and business acumen. In this case, it is important that businesses advocate for the common goal rather than simply for business success, and be prepared to give credit to all those involved.

Many remote presence technology companies are also working diligently to improve patient access to healthcare. By externalizing the technology component, a telemedicine startup significantly reduces overhead while giving their clients increased options for technology to meet their needs and budgets. This avoids the requirement of significant venture capital at the outset, and also ensures that the technology is handled by remote presence experts, allowing telemedicine practitioners to focus on providing cutting edge healthcare service.

Sustainability is inextricably linked to a company’s financial stability, but also derives from integration with the marketplace. While the aforementioned partnerships have obvious financial incentives, they also help make one relevant in the market. That relevance is not measured strictly in size or profit, but in the reputation of the level of service.

Goods and services can be obtained through a variety of outlets, from boutiques to so-called “superstores.” Finding one’s niche in the market will result in both profitability and sustainability.



Telestroke: Not Just About tPA

Acute stroke evaluation remains among the most frequently cited benefits of modern telemedicine technology. Known as ‘telestroke,’ the technology allows a neurologist at a remote site to reliably gather data by interviewing patients and family, performing physical examinations and reviewing brain imaging, directly impacting the course of a patient’s care. A recent article from Europe highlights that telestroke offers other benefits, tangible and intangible.

Stroke care in general at a hospital improves in several ways when telestroke consultations become available. Having a system in place to rapidly evaluate and treat stroke patients leads to faster and more accurate treatment of patients who need other brain treatments, such as clot extraction and neurosurgical intervention. Patients with stroke mimics can also be more rapidly treated. Telestroke leads to fewer unnecessary patient transfers, saving valuable time and money.

In stroke, care delayed is care denied. Getting stroke patients the immediate care they need at a local hospital rather than transferring them out leads to better outcomes and happier patients.

As hospital stroke volume increases, the staff gains experience and expertise in treating stroke cases. Stroke order sets provide a checklist to ensure that quality measures are being followed, and with increased experience comes increased use of such standards, which have been shown to improve stroke care. Even obstacles to physician staffing are addressed with telestroke experts on call. Doctors, as much as patients, prefer hospitals providing state of the art care.

In the hospitals we serve, the value of telestroke coverage resonates from the board room to the triage room. This is a technology whose time has come.

 



AcuteCare Telemedicine Discusses the Future of Teleneurology at GPT Conference

Dr. Matthews Gwynn, Partner, AcuteCare Telemedicine (ACT) will speak during the 2012 Georgia Partnership for Telehealth (GPT) Conference at the Ritz-Carlton, Reynolds Plantation in Lake Oconee, GA on Thursday, March 15th. The annual conference brings together physicians, nurses, and other industry figures to address a wide variety of topics related to telehealth, including recent innovations, advocacy and education, policies and regulations, and case studies.

Dr. Gwynn will discuss the potential of teleneurology in this decade. ACT is a leader in teleneurology services, dedicated to bringing high quality neurological care to underserved areas through the use of telemedicine technologies.

“Significant advances in technology are presently writing the next chapter of medical history. As futurists who see the possibilities and value of telemedicine, specifically teleneurology, ACT is truly on the forefront of this movement,” said Gwynn. “The GPT Conference is a fantastic opportunity to exchange knowledge with other industry leaders who share the same vision. Events such as this move us closer to a future where patients have access to the best possible care, regardless of their location.”

More information about GPT and the 2012 Conference can be accessed at http://www.gatelehealth.org/index.php/2011-conference/2012-conference/.



The Importance of Recognizing Sleep Disordered Breathing in Patients with Cognitive Dysfunction

Awareness of sleep disorders has increased over the past several years, leading more physicians to appreciate that Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is an independent risk factor for hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Although seemingly overlooked, studies as far back as 15 years have also suggested that OSA may be a risk factor for cognitive dysfunction.

When patients present to a neurologist with complaints of cognitive dysfunction, most are screened for potentially reversible causes such as vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, undiagnosed/untreated syphilis, or normal pressure hydrocephalus. If all laboratory and imaging studies are normal, these patients are often started on acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, in hopes of slowing down the rate of cognitive decline.  Screening for sleep apnea, however, is often times not performed. As a result, the opportunity to treat an otherwise harmful disorder and potentially reverse cognitive impairment is forfeited.

In 2010, an article was published in the New York Times entitled “When Sleep Apnea Masquerades as Dementia.” A case study was reported: “The woman was only in her 60s but complained that she was having trouble concentrating.” She couldn’t follow a television program or stay focused during a conversation. As he evaluated the woman, the physician asked, as he usually does, how she was sleeping. The woman, who lived alone, hadn’t noticed any problems. Her son, however, had stayed with her the previous night to drive her to the appointment. “She was snoring like a freight train,” he reported.  Overnight sleep testing determined that the woman had obstructive sleep apnea – nightlong interruptions in breathing that reduce oxygen flow to the brain and prevent deep sleep. The interruptions are quite common in older adults, exacerbating – or sometimes mimicking – dementia symptoms. Treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine her scores on neuropsychological tests eventually climbed back into normal range.

Another recent study published in JAMA, also showed that sleep disordered breathing may contribute to the development of dementia. 298 women 65 years or older and without dementia were enrolled in this study, undergoing overnight polysomnography testing. Those who were found to have sleep disordered breathing were more likely to have developed cognitive impairment or dementia on follow up testing. It is thought that hypoxemia resulting from sleep disordered breathing is responsible. Dr Michael J. Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY stated “We used to think that impaired sleep caused cognitive impairment, but this shows that nocturnal hypoxemia plays an important role and this suggests that the cognitive impairment might be partially reversible in some cases.

Although further studies are needed, these findings do stress the importance of screening patients with complaints of cognitive dysfunction for sleep apnea.  Because the large majority of people who develop dementia do so after the age of 65, it would seem imperative to screen younger patients with cognitive complaints for sleep disordered breathing.



Looking Backwards to See Ahead – Part 2: Accountability & Relationships

This is another in a series of blogs chronicling the development of AcuteCare Telemedicine (ACT). Much of this reflection involves lessons learned at 2011’s Annual Meeting of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). What follows is an amalgam of facts, experience and opinions culled from that fantastic symposium and honed by hindsight. Today’s blog will focus on ACT’s approach to accountability and relationships.

Accountability refers to the promise of optimal healthcare outcomes while maintaining an expected return on investment. Patient and physician satisfaction are cornerstones of accountability, but to depend solely on these measures has become passé. Administrators want measurable financial and clinical outcomes, and to obtain and retain clients, will expect supporting data for all assertions.

One must constantly seek meaningful measures of the services promised; encounter surveys gather data on every patient interaction, regardless of outcome. This data measures service utilization (e.g. stroke vs non-stroke, tPA vs. non-tPA, etc.) and efficiency (e.g. response time, “door to needle” time, etc). Constant focus on patient outcome requires frequent Mordibity & Mortality conferences. This leads to continuing education, reduced miscommunication and shared responsibility. Finally, financial impact (more specifically than simply “satisfaction”) can be obtained with quarterly or annual reviews of year-to-date ICD-10 referenced charges or admissions. However, emotionally powerful patient anecdotes must complement the sterile numbers. It is this human component that provides the raison d’etre, separating telemedicine from any number of telecommunication ventures.

Accountability also extends to the development and maintainance of relationships with ACT’s clients. A client considering telestroke invests significant time and capital and must undergo a fundamental paradigm shift regarding what constitutes optimal patient care. To facilitate this endeavor, a telemedicine service needs to become as integrated as possible into the culture of its remote partners. One cannot afford to simply be the latest technological gimmick, but rather must provide an approachable solution.

Frequent contact is paramount and must not be limited to patient encounters. Not all interaction can take place in the cloud; physical meetings allow remote presence technology to become an alternate mode of communication between colleagues, rather than a proxy for an actual relationship. Communication is the foundation of every meaningful relationship. Listening to the client will uncover their goals and challenges.  The telemedicine service will integrate more fully with a remote partner, helping the client on their terms. This may result in vertical integration with mutually beneficial services including electrophysiology studies, clinical trials, medical directorships, etc.

Horizontal integration may include multiple disciplines such as telestroke, teleICU or telepsychiatry. Ultimately, integration into a client’s business model and culture is crucial for long-term sustainability. ACT assures clients are not simply invested in telemedicine services, but in their relationship with ACT.