AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


The Personal Side of Acute Stroke Intervention

Mr. Rigby was found unresponsive, gazing to the right and unable to move his left side. Just moments ago, his nurse had seen the 91 year old awake in his hospital bed preparing himself for discharge from the hospital. Though the hospital lacked a neurologist, it had invested in telemedicine services. Immediate assessment of his acute neurological deficits would determine whether treatment with tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a clot-busting medication, or even thrombectomy (direct mechanical extraction of the clot) was appropriate. If performed within a very short time window, tPA or thrombectomy would open arteries and prevent progressive death of brain cells. However, it could also lead to hemorrhage, bleeding into the brain that could be devastating and even life-threatening. Thus, the teleneurologist was charged with not simply recognizing Mr. Rigby’s stroke symptoms, but also those factors which make the risk greater than the benefit.

As the AcuteCare Telemedicine physician on call, I was at the bedside within minutes via remote presence technology. The evidence; left hemiparesis, left visual field loss and inability to speak, made it clear; Mr. Rigby had sustained a large right hemisphere stroke. A large artery, the MCA, was blocked by clot. His nurse knew the exact time of symptom onset. Without treatment he may have survived, but it was likely he would not walk or talk. He met every inclusion criteria for tPA. Unfortunately, Mr. Rigby was not a good candidate. He had undergone a surgical procedure just the day before, his anticoagulation had been restarted that day and his platelets were very low. At the age of 91 years with these risk factors, the likelihood of serious hemorrhage was too great. As I informed the family members that had filled the hospital hallways, a look of desperation filled their eyes. His daughter stated, “This man is worth-saving.” Remembering my Hippocratic Oath, my immediate response in this case was, “I am certain he’s worth saving, but nobody is worth harming.”

Then I remembered this “case” was her father. I asked her to tell me more about Mr. Rigby. A picture of a family patriarch emerged. He was still vigorous, taking walks daily. He was driving. Indeed, he still routinely played 9 holes of golf. But what she told me next illustrated the shortcoming of using population-based inclusion and exclusion criteria as the sole determinant of risk-benefit for an individual. Mr. Rigby was the caretaker of his 89 year old disabled and blind wife. Without the ability to walk and speak not only Mr. Rigby would suffer. I made an immediate call to the Marcus Stroke Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The Marcus Center stroke physician agreed the criteria for invasive intervention suggested a high risk, but Mr. Rigby would be given a chance because the potential for benefit was irrefutable. Within a few hours the clot was extracted. Mr. Rigby had an opened artery with full reperfusion. His symptoms improved with only residual left arm weakness. Though speaking slowly, his good humor was immediately apparent. A family had their patriarch back.



Looking Backwards to See Ahead – Part 4: Running the Business

This is another blog in a series 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 several issues relevant to establishing and running a telemedicine service.

There are myriad of issues confronting physician-entrepreneurs when establishing a telemedicine service. Often these are not immediately evident, although some may be the focus of business development meetings. This blog reviews the topics of business size, communication/documentation, ROI considerations, and coding/billing issues.

The size of a company will directly impact its ability to stay true to its mission. Our firm belief is that the future of telemedicine is in regional providers partnering with both local hospitals and government or not-for-profits. There are larger providers of teleneurology, and their scale may be a corporate advantage; a large staff of part-time physicians to fractionate call burden as well as development of proprietary hardware & software (the cost of which is hidden in a monthly service charge). However, their size is not beneficial to patients and hospitals. In reality, the size of these “McTelemedicine” services paints them as something hospitals fear; impersonal, computerized doctors. The need to focus on healthcare solutions tailored to the specific needs of the healthcare region has been addressed in a recent blog.

Communication must occur in a timely fashion. Otherwise, the telemedicine consult is for naught. Dictating is necessary for documentation of the initial encounter in the permanent medical record, but will be delayed even if transcribed as “priority.” Faxing or emailing is faster, but not always practical. In order to reduce error & liability, especially for critical care issues, direct communication with the local treating physician and nurse is paramount. In cases of acute stroke, providing the medical opinion of whether tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) should be given is sufficient. The actual order for administration of tPA should be given by a physician actually present to review that the dose was properly calculated and administration was expedited.

Return on investment (ROI) will depend on maximizing revenue and avoiding costs – this is relevant to any business. The perspective of both the telemedicine provider and the client hospital must be taken into account. For example, revenue may come to the client hospital through the increased use of value added ancillary services (e.g. radiology, PT, Rehab). One must also identify cost drivers, areas of poor market share (e.g. EMS bypass), obstacles to access, and obstacles to productivity (e.g. difficulty luring a local neurologist because of ER coverage responsibilities). The telemedicine provider may also benefit from the addition of value added services such as reading neurophysiology studies (EEG, sleep, EMG) or lateral expansion through the development of ancillary specialties such as tele-ICU, telepsychiatry or telecardiology.

Coding or billing expertise is not typically required for remote presence consultation, as it is a service provided to the hospital and reimbursed by the hospital accordingly.  Proven increases in revenue and improved patient outcomes absolutely justify this business model. However, in some situations, a physician may bill directly for their services, for example, if the hospital is rural or designated a disadvantaged Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). When coding these encounters, Medicare regards telemedicine as face to face time. Using a GT modifier prevents charge bumping if a patient is subsequently seen by a community physician on the same day. Records must also state “Services provided by telemedicine.” One cannot bill Medicare Advantage in an MSA unless there is a contract with the Medicare Advantage carrier.

Medicaid may reimburse encounters within an MSA, but Medicaid does NOT have to follow Medicare rules. Treat them like a third party payer. Keep in mind, the Medicaid staffer handling your reimbursement issues may require education. Finally, follow up telemedicine visits can be billed for 1 visit every 3 days.

Considering these issues, most of which were not immediately evident at the outset, has helped AcuteCare Telemedicine create impact in the market place. ACT not only hightlights the clinical value of its physicians but also addresses the comprehensive business needs of the organizations it serves.



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.



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.

 

 



Georgia Teleneurology Rebrands as AcuteCare Telemedicine

AcuteCare Telemedicine (ACT), an Atlanta-based healthcare provider specializing in treatment of acute strokes in underserved hospitals, launched a new brand as it gains market share in the industry.   AcuteCare, formerly Georgia Teleneurology (GTN), has pursued its mission of providing high-quality emergency neurological care via remote presence to Georgia hospitals lacking 24/7 coverage since September 2009.

The company rebranded in June 2011, officially changing its name to AcuteCare Telemedicine maintaining its uncompromising dedication to deliver the highest quality of neurological care to those it serves.  ACT is positioned to become a nationwide leader in the practice of telemedicine.

ACT’s success is largely due to the 4 partners who happen to be board certified neurologists with over 50 years of combined experience.  Dr. Matthews Gwynn, Dr. Lisa Johnston, Dr. James Kiely, and Dr. Keith Sanders have a proven track record managing patients with neurological emergencies, particularly acute stroke, via remote presence technology.  As a result, ACT has contributed to improved patient outcomes.

“We are excited about the launch of our new brand reflective of our personality,” comments Dr. Kiely. “Our mission and intention is clear.  ACT is driving force in the industry, known for quality and commitment to our craft.  The rebrand is a component of that.”

As the landscape of medicine continues to evolve, the need for acute neurological care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year is critical.  In addition to increased patient benefit, ACT also provides an opportunity for hospitals to serve acute neurological patients, ultimately impacting revenue growth.

To learn more about ACT, visit www.acutecaretelemed.com.