BALTIMORE, Md. — You could feel it all across the American Telemedicine Association conference and trade show, rising from more than 250 exhibitor booths, implicit in the buoyant demeanor of many of the thousands of attendees, confirmed by speakers including the CEO of the industry’s largest health insurer: Telehealth is an idea whose time has come.
The direction of health care delivery is something that keeps being repeated — controlling costs by keeping people healthy or at least less sick — but the tools to do that are still developing, and the concepts of distance medicine and routine monitoring of people where they live are getting serious attention. Health care realignment is making people “realize the value that telemedicine has offered the health care system for years,” said Wesley Valdes, medical director for telehealth services at Intermountain Healthcare, greeting a steady stream of attendees at a booth teeming with high-def screens.
Another busy exhibitor at the Baltimore convention was Robert Kolodner, M.D., former national coordinator of health IT and now vice president and chief medical officer of a telemedicine company called Vitel Net, McLean, Va. For the last decade, he’d been talking about more person-centered health and health care, especially the need to make care more convenient, more preventive.
“Telehealth is poised to be in that position. We have an infrastructure now — with smartphones, smart devices, people using laptops and Skype and FaceTime — where there’s a skill set and a comfort level that is now more prevalent throughout society, and that enables the opportunity for telehealth to be something that patients or individuals … can be comfortable using those resources,” he said.
In a keynote address Monday, UnitedHealth Group President and CEO Stephen Hemsley said that in an environment where every innovation in health care seems to add to costs, “we think that telemedicine has a great future, in a great place.” He didn’t address the insurer’s reimbursement policies for telemedicine, but said UnitedHealth is convinced enough of its value to use it increasingly in its own provision of direct primary care services, a $7 billion annual business. Providers in its network do 350,000 outreaches and 4,500 home visits a day. It is remotely monitoring 20,000 people, mainly in cardiovascular care.
Also working in telemedicine’s favor is the rapid migration of the company’s health plan to value-based reimbursement. UnitedHealthcare currently categorizes about $30 billion of its slightly more than $100 billion in annual medical services “in a performance-based or accountable care payment construct,” Hemsley said. “We’re dedicated to getting that to about $65 billion within the span of about two, two and a half years.”