‘Skype on steroids:’ iPads battle healthcare costs

I recently attended a healthcare summit near Washington, D.C. that included a segment on telehealth. The use of iPads and other tablets in healthcare has been a growing trend and all over the country, hospitals and agencies have been experimenting with this technology to solve problems.

Tara Courtland

Communications Director Tara Courtland

Dr. Katherine Wibberly, director of the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center, recently explained the use of tablets in taking healthcare on the road.

Wibberly referred to telehealth as “Skype on steroids” and said the technology will allow all types of medical equipment and tests to be performed remotely, from heart monitoring to diabetes testing to weight monitoring.

It also has promising implications for stroke patients. An ambulance crew equipped with tablets can start processing the patient while en route to the hospital, saving minutes that are vital when a patient has had a stroke.

But it’s not all lifesaving moments. The most widespread use of telehealth will be in saving time and money on routine matters.

Wibberly gave the example of a child at school who goes to the nurse’s office with an earache. Currently, the nurse calls the child’s parent, who leaves work, drives to the school, picks the child up and takes him to the doctor’s office. The doctor looks in the child’s ear, diagnoses an ear infection, calls in a prescription and tells the parent that the child can return to school.

But by that time, both the parent and child have missed most of the day.

Instead, a telehealth-enabled tablet would allow the nurse to check the child’s ear and send the images directly to the doctor. The doctor would then make the diagnosis remotely and call in the prescription. The parent could pick up the prescription on the way home and no one need miss school or work.

That same kind of remote diagnosis is already being used by ambulance crews to keep non-critical cases out of the emergency room.

Earlier this year, a story on NPR detailed a program in Houston where ambulance crews are using telehealth and taxis to help patients who are ill but not critical to avoid the ER. Ambulance crews there are equipped with tablets and when someone calls 9-1-1 for a medical issue that doesn’t seem to require the emergency room, the EMTs call in a doctor via video chat, just to be sure. The doctor can then talk to the patient and make a preliminary diagnosis remotely. But it doesn’t stop there — the doctor also sets the caller up with a clinic appointment for the next morning. And sends a taxi over to pick them up and return them home — for free.

Houston’s pilot program costs more than $1 million a year to run and it’s being paid for with city money plus grants, including one from the Medicaid program.

But the city spends far more than that each year in ER visits that could have been handled by a primary care physician. Officials estimate using video chat plus free taxis and clinic visits will save more than $2 million a year.

We’ve spent years talking about the growing cost of healthcare and the seemingly insurmountable political obstacles that prevent a solution. How ironic that Apple may end up solving the problem using the same platform we use for playing Candy Crush.

For more information on the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center and a list of telehealth providers in the region, visit www.matrc.org.

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About Tara Courtland

Tara Courtland is the communications director at NEMT.
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