A recent announcement by networking giant Cisco Systems that it is setting up a pilot program in California to explore advanced telemedicine applications is an indication both of the increasing attraction of health IT to major companies, and the importance of upcoming decisions on U.S. broadband deployment.
The two-year California Telemedicine Pilot Project is being launched at over 15 sites in total, in conjunction with Molina Healthcare, two community health centers in San Diego and the state of California. The goal is to provide health and wellness services to both underserved and underinsured communities throughout the state.
It combines complex communications technologies"including high-definition cameras and new digital medical scope technologies"to deliver a realtime, immersive experience which Cisco claims is new to healthcare.
In fact, company officials claim the technology, dubbed HealthPresence, creates a doctor-patient experience so authentic that it is now feasible to consider telemedicine as a replacement for face-to-face visits.
"It creates a platform for a more engaging, personal experience that allows the patient to see what the doctor is seeing, at the same time," said Dr. Kaveh Safavi, vice president and global lead for Cisco's healthcare practice. "It provides a better value for the patient, and allows them to be more involved in their own care."
It also allows for real-time collaboration between physicians and doctors, something that's difficult with other telemedicine technology. Overall, it makes for a credible alternative for patient care, particularly in areas of the country that have been traditionally underserved when it comes to healthcare, Safavi said.
There's already lots of activity in telemedicine, said Jonathan Linkous, chief executive of the American Telemedicine Association, "but it's always significant when a Fortune 500 company makes an investment (in the sector)."
Telemedicine has been around for decades, he pointed out, and is well-entrenched in certain areas of healthcare. Its largest uses are in teleradiology"for transmitting still images from one location to another"as well as for remote monitoring of pacemakers and other patient cardio devices. Additional uses are for remote mental health services, which also uses video, and intensive care monitoring.
Interactive video is one of the newest areas for telemedicine, and Cisco's participation in the Californiapilot program could have a big impact.
"When you have an emerging technology and a company like Cisco decides to make a major investment in it, that can have a dramatic duplicating effect," Linkous said.
For Cisco, the pilot program is a proof-of-concept project which isn't necessarily about the technology, Safavi said, since much of that is known to work. Instead, it's how the technology will work in practice and how the various healthcare providers that need to be involved will work with each other.
A big part of that is also deciding what the regulatory and legal needs are, which is why the kind of public-private partnership that's involved with the California pilot is so important, Safavi said. That will be even more important if the technology is to expand nationwide, and connect organizations across state lines.
Given the bandwidth needed for the real-time video portion of HealthPresence, it's no accident that California was chosen as the location for the pilot. It has already committed to boosting statewide broadband capacity via avenues such as the California Telehealth Network.
Having broadband nationally available in the rural and remote areas where HealthPresence will have its biggest impact is critical, Safavi said. Government organizations like the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service have been providing millions of dollars to improve high-speed Internet connections to those regions, but there's still much that needs to be done.
The Obama administration has committed to improving broadband throughout the U.S.and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees spectrum availability, has been conducting a series of hearings as a prelude to a major report on its broadband plans, expected to be released in mid- March.Dr. Mohit Kaushal, digital healthcare director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative, said at a recent Washington conference that the report will lay out what role government has in improving healthcare.
The way discussions have been going with industry, Linkous said, "we think (the FCC) understands, but we'll wait to see the proposals in March."