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Connected Health in the Heartland

The VirtuMedix Telehealth Platform launches at The Iowa eClinic.

What images come to mind when you hear the words "the Heartland" or "the Midwest"?

Maybe countless rows of wheat or corn under a blue sky, a farmer in overalls ambling along on a tractor, a pasture full of grazing dairy cows? Even if you come from a large Midwestern city, you know how ubiquitous those depictions are. They represent our country's history and culture in so many important ways.

What most likely does not come to mind is technology innovation, like telehealth or telemedicine. One may even think that these types of technological advances are limited to bigger, more cosmopolitan cities.

Telemedicine is growing by leaps and bounds, according to many researchers. In the coming year, according to BBC Research and Towers Watson, the global telemedicine market is predicted to be worth $27 billion, with Virtual Health Services making up $16 billion of that amount. According to IDC, by 2018, 65 percent of interactions with healthcare organizations will be done via mobile devices, and by 2018, 70 percent of them will have apps, offer wearables, do remote health monitoring and offer virtual care.

Telemedicine, it appears, is now becoming integrated into the ongoing operations of hospitals, specialty departments, home health agencies, private physician offices as well as consumer's homes and workplaces. 

Or is it?

Healthcare Consumerism

What about consumer adoption?

Is it really growing as quickly as the global marketplace seems to claim? In a study conducted by Survey Sampling International on behalf of HealthMine, as recently as July 2015, forty-one percent of consumers had never heard of telemedicine before. And in a similar survey by Healthline, only nine percent of respondents said they had used a telehealth service before.

SEE ALSO: Benefits of Telemedicine

This lower rate of adoption truly needs to be remedied, for several reasons. The influx of millions of new consumers into the healthcare landscape due to the Affordable Care Act is one. Even more pressing is the serious shortage of primary care doctors in the United States. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, not one state, in the entire United States, is able to fully meet their populations need.  Lack of supply and increased demand are certainly two powerful reasons caregivers and healthcare organizations need to seek out alternative ways to provide care. In addition, for the consumer, innovative technologies such as telehealth offer so many advantages. Accessing your doctor from a laptop or phone without having to leave your workplace or home is clearly the most obvious.

Beyond the time and convenience factors, there are many other benefits to the virtual care model. Telemedicine empowers patients to better manage their health, by providing them increased and expedient access to healthcare services and educational information. Empowered patients are not only more connected to the doctor's offices and their health needs, but also more amenable to following through on advice given by the doctor. This in turn speeds up time to recovery creating a healthier patient population.  

Hospital Buy-In Paramount

What can physicians and health systems do to help patients along the pathway to better, more efficient care?

Well, by doing exactly what the physicians at The Iowa Clinic did: partner with a technology vendor to create a telehealth platform that garners buy-in from patients at the beginning of the process.

In order to adapt to the market and efficiently and effectively serve its patients going forward, The Iowa Clinic knew that telemedicine was a necessary solution. In early 2015, the clinic began searching for a telehealth service that would fit with their multi-faceted approach to patient care, was HIPAA-compliant, and had top-notch security to protect patient data. They also wanted to make sure their doctors staffed the telemedicine platform versus outsourcing the service.

After a six-month search, The Iowa Clinic partnered with Comtech Telecommunications Corporation's VirtuMedix to launch The Iowa eClinic.

Using the VirtuMedix platform, The Iowa eClinic enables the primary care doctors to extend their high-quality medical care to existing Iowa Clinic patients through a more convenient method. Patients can use any device to contact providers and be notified via text, phone, or the computer when the doctor is ready to see them. The average wait time is under 10 minutes. This saves the patient time, money and reduces the patients need to be away from the office or home for extended periods of time waiting to see a physician. The VirtuMedix platform ensures that The Iowa Clinic patient information remains confidential, secure and conforms to all HIPAA requirements.  

With the integration of VirtuMedix, The Iowa eClinic service will now provide patients with virtual access to telemedicine services delivered by licensed Iowa Clinic providers (including Family Medicine and Internal Medicine physicians as well as Advanced Practice Providers such as ARNP's or PA's). Not only does it improve care access, it also creates a more patient-centric and seamless process.  For example, doctors at the Iowa eClinic are aware of local healthcare resources available so the patient can get referred to the right specialist if needed. This reduces travel time, related stresses for the patient and saves lives.

Patient Engagement

Although telemedicine has been shown to reduce the cost of healthcare and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays, hospital systems have struggled with patient adoption.

To ensure that the patients of Iowa adopted and engaged with the new telemedicine platform, The Iowa eClinic used their trusted brand in the area to market the technology. This created a sense of trust and credibility with the product since patients understood they would be treated by providers associated with a familiar brand. Next, the Iowa eClinic created a very focused plan of deployment. For the first 12 months they utilized seven Iowa Clinic doctors and targeted a strategic patient pool of about 50,000 primary care users. During this time, the primary care physicians had their patients test out the platform. The key to engaging consumers with innovative health technology is getting them engaged at the beginning of the process.

So, the next time you hear "heartland," be sure to think innovation and technology because this is how connected health is done.

Kannan Sreedhar is Group Vice President and General Manager, VirtuMedix at Comtech Telecommunications Corp.; C. Edward Brown is CEO at The Iowa Clinic.

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