A Checkup on Verizon's Telehealth Service
Over the past several months, Verizon has launched a series of initiatives focused on telehealth and telemedicine, under the umbrella title of Telehealth Collaboration Services. The offerings, introduced in partnership with Cisco Systems, are targeted at everyone from hospitals to pharmaceutical companies, and cover services ranging from patient diagnostics to continuing medical education. Verizon managing principal for health care Nancy Green says any implementation starts with what the company calls a telehealth readiness assessment. "We look at an organization's strategy, the full continuum of where they're at and then we help them along the way," she says. "We can help them strategize, design, implement and then manage the whole process - and that includes the premise equipment, from the endpoint equipment all the way to a mobile environment for teleconsulting remotely over a mobile device." The three main solution sets targeted by the company's Telehealth Collaboration Services, Green says, are medical education, healthcare administration, and remote consultations. "A lot comes from the remote consultation area," she says. "That's where you get into the clinical work for a telestroke application or a telemental health application, where we're utilizing specialties in those domains to put the right equipment and services and business and clinical processes around that application for our clients." Green says Verizon specifically selected the word telehealth (rather than telemedicine, e-health, etc.), because the company is aiming for a holistic approach to healthcare-related communications. "We called it telehealth because we have an overarching piece of our business, which is unified communications and collaboration and where we see telehealth moving to is what we call 'any-to-any-to-any' any device over any network to any carrier," she says. "And that's a great endgame to work toward."
Can Mobile Computing and Telehealth Save Hospitals Money?That can cover an extremely wide range of healthcare-related functionality, from a doctor consulting via videoconferencing to a medical device company doing product development. "We have clients now who are global with their telehealth, and some of them are administrative," Green says. "We have a client, for example, that does product development globally with a big telepresence room -- and they've eliminated 18 months in their product development cycle, getting a product to market faster, by using that."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Green says, other clients are collaborating with Verizon on telestroke solutions. "They have an endpoint in an emergency room, and that emergency room is getting in touch with a neurosurgeon or neurologist, and they're making their diagnosis in critical points: they're looking at the patient directly to say, 'No, that patient needs to stay there,' 'Go ahead and administer tPA,' all those different things that can affect the person's life immediately," she says. When one hospital starts to implement a solution like this, Green says, competing hospitals quickly follow. "They're all trying to attract patients, so they want to make sure that their technology is just as good - and they're all trying to attract the same doctors, so they want to make sure that the technology for the physician is the utmost and best that they can possibly do," she says. Ultimately, Green says, the goal of telehealth is to make the patient-to-provider encounter less expensive, particularly for patients in remote locations. "Now, we can set up a site that the rural population can come to, where there's a telehealth solution that's connected back to the specialist -- and so the specialist can see more people, and the rural population doesn't have to drive all the way in," she says. Still, Frost & Sullivan analyst Zachary Bujnoch says the jury's still out on how much money will be saved. "If someone's putting in new hardware to start one of these systems, I guarantee you they're not going to save money those first couple of years I've combed the research articles and such for outcomes -- do patients get healthier on these things, do they work -- and most of those have been very, very positive but I have not seen data that convinces me about the cost," he says.
On the other hand, Bujnoch says, any security concerns about telehealth deployments are likely overstated. The security challenges around providing a solution like this, he says, actually aren't that different from any other enterprise security issues. "They've been doing security for years, they know how to do it, and medical's just another thing where they can make a secure connection," he says. The real mobile health care security issues, Bujnoch says, show up where you might least expect them. "There were hundreds of thousands of breaches of people's medical information last year and about an eighth of those were all in one instance where a hospital sent their servers off to be repaired, but hadn't wiped off the patient data," he says. "Those are the kinds of things where a vast majority of these security issues happen." Ovum analyst Christine Chang agrees that security shouldn't be a major concern. "Every time you have patient data floating around, you need to make sure it's encrypted and secure so, yes, it's something we need to make sure that we're following, and that we have all the procedures and policies in place and we're doing everything we're supposed to be doing, but it shouldn't be a barrier," she says. "If we're sharing our bank information online, then we should be able to share health information." And it won't be too long, Chang says, before telehealth is seen as just another part of healthcare. "Doctors will come into the office, they'll see some patients in person, some patients over video conferencing, and then they'll keep track of other patients via e-mail-- and it'll just be routine," she says. "It's going to take some time to get there, but that's where we're seeing the market head." Ultimately, Bujnoch says, Verizon's offering is good news for the market in general, whatever the future may hold. "My prediction is that it's not going to happen the way people think it's going to happen, because no one's really figured it out yet -- but I guarantee that people like Verizon coming into it is only going to help for them to actually put their sights on it is a big deal," he says.