The Virtual Care Insider

The String Theory of Telemedicine

in Strategy

Zipnosis Team

Zipnosis Team
February 24, 2016

Like a tangled ball of string, telemedicine can endlessly fascinate. It can improve care access – anyone from anywhere can see a physician. It can reduce care costs – how expensive can it be to Skype your doctor? It can be used to diagnose and treat your health problems – everything from your sinus infection to your Type I diabetes. It can even be used to talk doc-to-doc – care coordination solved. What can’t telemedicine do!?

The boundless enthusiasm reminds me of the great Monty Python skit about an advertiser brainstorming a marketing campaign to sell 122,000 miles of string in three-inch pieces. It’s waterproof! Rust proof! Low calorie! It can tie up very small parcels! It kills 99 percent of known household pests! It’s got a million uses!!!

The Quest for the Holy Grail

In reality, the implementation of a successful telemedicine strategy is a lot more tangled than that – think string theory in Quantum Physics not ball of string and cuddly kitten. What we perceive as promising answers to critical healthcare problems actually lead to other universes with new challenges to contemplate. It’s easy to get lost in the complexity, as practical applications with solid ROI remain elusive.

Telemedicine has been a tantalizing goal for about 60 years, ever since scientists in the space program first debated ways to diagnose and treat astronauts. Since then, not much has changed in the thinking behind the idea, so why the excitement now? Information technology, of course, is the new space program. Picture quality and bandwidth have advanced light years. We can FaceTime with Grandma whenever we want so why can’t we televisit with the family pediatrician? If Netflix can predict what we want to watch and how, why can’t a hospital help us avoid the ER when we know our child has strep?

Marketing claims made within the industry are propagating those easy parallels without being straightforward about the complexities or actual benefits. It’s got a million uses!!! Lacking a practical business model, video-only telemedicine services don’t come close to meeting the everyday needs of patients and the efficiency and financial challenges of clinicians and providers. Pushing video as a stand-alone solution is like selling three-inch pieces of string and promising the world.

What’s missing is a clear understanding of value.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Telemedicine, like any other healthcare service, is not a cure-all but a commodity. It has its uses but it’s a tool to be leveraged not an answer in and of itself.

Patients don’t care about access; they value convenience and ease. How convenient would it be to shop on Amazon by video conference?

Clinicians don’t want to spend time engaging patients on-screen the same way they do in person. They want quick, digitized interactions that focus on care and decrease hassle, data entry, and time wastage.

Provider organizations don’t want an IT strategy that drives up user numbers without bolstering revenue. They want channels to new customers, a more competitive value proposition for current patients and clinicians, and meaningful gains in cost reduction and workflow efficiency.

So why let video-only rule?

Adaptive online interviews allow patients to make health queries and enter information when it’s convenient for them, not for providers or clinicians – think in-between meetings or in the minivan, not in the waiting room.

Evidence-based algorithms can determine when it’s necessary for a patient to see a clinician in person, or when an e-scrip or video consultation are better options.

Text alerts and EMR messages can let busy clinicians know when a patient is ready for a video visit and give them all the patient information they need exactly when they need it.

Video, in other words, should just be one part of a larger platform of solutions that creates actual value for patients and clinicians while driving solid ROI for providers.

The next time yet another telemedicine startup describes its video solutions, ask about the whole ball of yarn, not just the three-inch piece.

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