Telemedicine is typically offered in rural areas, helping to provide care for the underserved. In Georgia, patients can currently teleconference with doctors by"visiting" them via personal computers, smartphones and tablets -- potentially from the comfort of their own homes.
Thanks to the Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth (GPT), other states are interested in following suit. Smiilar partnerships have formed in Alabama and Florida, and GPT is in talks with 11 other states. In this edited and abridged transcript, Paula Guy, CEO for the GPT, discusses how telemedicine in the state works now and some of the technology required to participate.
Can you tell me about the technology involved in making telemedicine so easy on the part of the patient?
You'll see technologies that are advanced and so much more affordable today being put in the homes; Bluetooth technologies where you can stick your finger in and it just literally "Bluetooths" your data into a database and your physicians can monitor you.
I think 4G is really going to change the way we do things because connectivity has been a really big problem in the past -- getting sufficient broadband to do video. We're already seeing in areas that have 4G that the quality of images and even the video itself is truly incredible. It's definitely getting easier and less expensive.
I read that patients can use personal computers, iPads and iPhones with the proper app to see their doctors. Is that accurate?
There's a lot more to it than just saying you've got a phone with an app and you can do telemedicine on it. The composite board of medical examiners does not allow for some of this to be done over the phone -- it has to be a very secure environment. So we've got some work to do to get it where it's routine that patients can see their doctor from the home. We still have educating and training to do to get the different states up to speed on what is typically acceptable in the telemedicine industry.
If I wanted to see my doctor via telehealth, how does that work in Georgia?
Right now, there are over 300 locations in the state where you can go and see your primary care physician or a specialist. If you live in a small town, instead of driving two hours, you would just drive to a clinic where you have a [telemedicine] system and see the doctor there. They're able to look in the ears, eyes, nose and throat, chest sounds, lung sounds, radiology images -- all of these things can be shared and looked at in any of these locations.
The story I read mentioned a Bluetooth stethoscope. Can you tell me how that works?
They're typical Littman stethoscopes; physicians use them in their everyday practice. Last year, Littman developed it with Bluetooth technology; when [physicians practice] telemedicine, they just touch a button and connect with Bluetooth. We were able to hear heart and lung sounds all the way from Bangladesh. They're so easy to use, and they're much more affordable than what we've had in the past.
GPT is working with Alabama and Florida on their telemedicine efforts. Are any other states as far along in their telehealth development as Georgia?
California has a lot of programs, but it's not a coordinated effort. Texas has some programs. Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Maine have some, but they're all very small. We grew from six encounters in 2006 to over 40,000 last year, and that's going to double, we think, this year.
We used to beg people to participate -- we never have to beg people to participate now; they're all coming to us. We have somebody new joining the network every few days.
What does it take for a clinic or doctor's office to participate?
First, they need the equipment. Instead of having to purchase extensive carts (which are nice) for $35,000 to $45,000, you can equip them on a laptop. They join the network, they pay a small fee to join [$8,500, which includes equipment], and then they have access to almost 200 physicians now participating in the network. They get the IT support of a liaison who goes out, educates the sites and "handholds" them through the process, because it's very important that they understand and get good experience from the very beginning.
How is security handled?
This is a private intranet that is secure and HIPAA compliant. All software and equipment are also encrypted.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for other states looking to do the same thing?
I would say just do it. Don't wait for legislation; just begin to move along the path. Don't talk about it; you have to show what the impact can be and how efficient and cost effective it can be providing care this way.
I would say that's the most important thing is getting the right people to understand what telemedicine is and be able to see it and move forward. I truly believe it's going to be known as health care in five years. We're not even going to call it telemedicine, because there's no way we can continue to provide access to care the routine way.