Author: Joe Peterson, M.D.
The old lessons that have proven true in this new medium called telemedicine are primarily clinical ones. Quality, as Ford once said, has to be job #1. It has to be built into operating systems and managed as, or more aggressively with, distributed groups of physicians, as it does in traditional bricks and mortar institutions. There should be no reason that providers of physician services at a distance enjoy any holiday from the same accepted quality and privacy standards that traditional institutions are held to: Joint Commission accreditation, HIPAA compliance, etc. Of note, the fact that connecting to physicians remotely requires an electronic flow of information does give telemedicine a leg up in managing quality. As every patient’s case has to be committed to a system in order to be communicated to a distant facility, then that data is by definition accessible for real time review and monitoring. For example, adherence to best practices and accepted protocols are simple to measure in patient care decisions being communicated real-time through a single data system. Similarly, the logging of real-time actions into a single data system allow the review and measurement of the time required or delayed during progress against a diagnostic or clinical plan—it’s a great way to define the actionable inefficiencies in a clinical operation.
Like quality, patient satisfaction remains a prerequisite not only for good care but also for the most efficient care. Investments in telemedicine-based efficiency actually allow telemedicine-based interactions to devote more time to the patient interaction—always a factor in patient satisfaction—simply because local logistical factors have been washed from the physician’s day. This has been a happy and unexpected side effect of telemedicine. A well organized service leaves the physician with more time to speak to patients and a better ability to remain “on schedule” throughout the day, leading to many more “thank yous” than physicians working over this new medium were accustomed to receiving in the course of their traditional practice.
Teleneurology has taught new lessons about the actual role of technology in the patient interaction; enough patients have been seen that there is a body of experience now built directly from thousands of patient care interactions. One is the clear lesson that technology alone is not a solution, it’s a component. Despite the great potential of telemedicine as an adjunct to traditional care strategies, there’s a very large amount of videoconferencing equipment that was purchased with grant money and now sits in a closet covered with a dusty ER blanket. This happens because there’s a great deal more steps required to efficiently connect patients and physicians, in real time, than a couple of videoconferencing endpoints. Teleneurology has taught us that real people and technology infrastructure—not isolated equipment purchases—are what’s required to capture the efficiencies promised by the concept of telemedicine.
Another lesson learned from these thousands of patients is that they are much faster to accept change than the physician community. As long the quality of the technology ‘connections’ are good and the service is executed with obvious professionalism, patients are accepting this new delivery mechanism and have moved on in their internal review and acceptance of telemedicine as a delivery vehicle for good care.
I was reminded very directly of this earlier this month while interviewing a family about their telemedicine experience. The daughter that was with her father during his acute stroke, was telling the other family members about the experience: “and so the emergency doctor then got the neurologist, who talked to dad and me, and he told us that dad should get this new medicine which he did, and he could move his arm and leg again before I left the hospital.” At no point did this daughter mention to her family the qualifier that the neurologist appeared by video. She had already accepted the medium and moved on to what was important to her, that her father get better. Tens of thousands of patients have accepted this new medium, and now the traditional care system is charged with catching up.
Teleneurology has reminded us also that change is hard in clinical medicine but that with telemedicine, great speed can be obtained in capturing the numbers of patient and clinical encounters required to prove the case of this new care delivery tool. Clinical results, financial results, subject populations for clinical trials, all can be accumulated faster with 100 hospitals connected through a single telemedicine system than can be through traditional research collaborations between bricks and mortar providers. In this regard, the growth of telemedicine as a delivery mechanism will be fueled more each month by the accumulation of patient experiences.
To date, of these new and old lessons derived from the experience of teleneurology, many will form the basis for the successful expansion of telemedicine into new clinical venues. From this regard, teleneurology has, and continues to, plow an important path for the growth of telemedicine. At the same time, teleneurology reminds us of the oldest lesson of change: all the hype over gadgets and the newest and greatest doesn’t overcome the reality that financial considerations drive many changes in healthcare. If financial models are developed that incorporate the same obvious wins for hospitals, patients, neurologists and payors that are intrinsic to the teleneurology model, telemedicine will grow. This lesson from teleneurology is perhaps one of the most important legacies that early teleneurology programs will leave in the unfolding story of telemedicine.