AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


Healthcare Reform and the Impact on Telemedicine

The recent announcement of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in favor of upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has prompted widespread speculation among citizens of the US about the future of healthcare.  Notwithstanding the politics associated with the decision, the ruling carries significant impact for citizens in terms of access to preventive care and insurance coverage.

Telemedicine providers are heavily impacted by the ruling as well. The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) believes that it will positively impact the development of telemedicine, mHealth, and other remote technologies, citing 4 main reasons; the announcement reduces hesitation to invest in telemedicine technologies, protects existing investments in telemedicine, bolster’s telemedicine’s role in many healthcare programs, and strengthens telemedicine’s fundamental value proposition.

As healthcare enters its next era, telemedicine offers a model for streamlining care coordination and improving patient outcomes. In the period of time between healthcare reform being codified into law and the Supreme Court ruling to uphold it, there had been a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the healthcare industry implementing major changes in practice, as it would cause complications should the law be overturned, but the affirmation clears up many of the primary legal and cost concerns, opening the door for telemedicine to address logistical and financial pain points for both providers and patients.

Ultimately, telemedicine fits snugly into the PPACA. For ACO’s needing to include services unavailable in their area, a remote presence physician will be drastically most cost-effective than hiring a full time local MD. Telemedicine also helps alleviate costs for underinsured or completely uninsured patients as well as alleviating strain on the healthcare system caused by unnecessary emergency visits through improvements in preventive care. The court’s decision, while sparking some controversy on other fronts, is the latest step forward in the rapid evolution of telemedicine as a powerful solution for a multitude of healthcare issues facing Americans.



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.

 



Telemedicine: Modern Breakthrough or Timeless Concept?

Telemedicine is the practice of medicine at a distance; interaction that occurs remotely with the physician removed from direct contact with either the patient or other physicians. Telemedicine can include all phases of the physician-patient relationship, from evaluation (including pathology) to diagnosis and treatment. Although  recent breakthroughs in telecommunications technologies have accelerated the advancement of telemedicine, the desire to seek medical counsel regardless of the proximity of the healthcare provider is a common thread throughout medical history. The mechanism has changed, but medicine has long worked to remove the barriers of distance and time.

As early as the Middle Ages, “telepathology” was employed in the form of sending urine samples over distance to physicians for analysis. Prescriptions were carried over miles to patients before the advent of postal services. With the postal service came written letters describing symptoms to physicians, who would reply with diagnoses and treatment plans. These are all examples distinctly foreshadowing the emails and blog centered care that is now gaining a foothold.

Eventually, a milestone was reached when the telegraph allowed transmission of x-ray images. By the late 1800’s, telephony allowed direct 2-way communication between physicians. Still, a physical connection was required, and physicians at sea or without telephone access were at a loss. The radio broke that barrier by the 1920’s, and by the middle of the century, television technology brought real time images into the equation.

Near the end of the last century the most rapid, indeed explosive, growth of telemedicine utilization resulted from the symbiosis of computer technology, wireless communication networks and the internet. The ease of access to telemedicine that modern communication technology provides has broadened the scope of services. “Telehealth,” the utilization of remote presence to monitor health conditions, rather than responding to acute emergencies, is essentially commonplace. Moreover, well-care and health education have benefitted as well.

Today, we do not think twice about calling patients or colleagues on a phone, logging onto a computer for laboratory results, or reviewing radiology images on a TV screen. Soon, electronic health records (EHR’s) will be the norm. There are even technologies on the horizon which will become a partner with the doctor in establishing a diagnosis. The question for our future is when does new remote presence technology become standard of care? Inevitably, we will lose the “tele” and acknowledge that we are completely free of distance as an obstacle to patient care.