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Telecom Providers See Opportunities In Telemedicine

AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint are among the telecom companies that have announced new initiatives for telehealth services, and there are more opportunities to come, says an IDC report.

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Telecommunications providers that were once hesitant to enter the telemedicine market due to limited reimbursements for services rendered are shaking off their doubts and developing a more aggressive, confident approach to telemedicine, an IDC report concludes.

Published in May, the IDC Health Insights report entitled: "Business Strategy: Monetizing Telemedicine--Telecommunications Provider Opportunities," is the second in a series of four that examines the market for telemedicine and telehealth services.

The report described 2010 as a "tipping point" in telecom providers' go-to-market strategy and notes that several companies took the plunge and announced new healthcare initiatives dedicated to providing telehealth services.

For example, last year AT&T launched AT&T ForHealth, a collection of services dedicated to accelerating the delivery of wireless, networked, and cloud-based systems specifically for the healthcare industry.

Verizon unveiled the Verizon Health Information Exchange , a cloud-based service that consolidates clinical patient data and makes it available over the Internet. Last year also saw Sprint enter into a partnership with mobile medical software developer AirStrip Technologies to transmit medical data over wireless networks.

"I was impressed with how much some of the telecom providers had moved forward in their connected health plans," Irene Berlinsky, IDC's senior research analyst, Multiplay Services, said in an interview. "I was not sure that 2010 was going to be the tipping point that it was, but we saw a lot of announcements to indicate that was a significant year for the telemedicine industry."

Berlinsky noted that the transition from paper-based systems to digitized medical records and the growing potential market that would be eligible for some kind of connected health program adds up to opportunities that telecom providers cannot ignore.

According to IDC, the total addressable market for telecom providers in home telehealth in the United States will grow to 60.3 million households in 2015.

The report identified other shifts in healthcare, brought on by health reform, which also will create revenue opportunities in telemedicine. For example, Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and patient-centered medical homes will reimburse physicians and hospitals for better managing their patients with chronic conditions, coordinating care, and reducing preventable readmissions.

By the same token, in October 2012, physicians will be penalized with reduced diagnosis-related group (DRG) payments for Medicare fee-for-service patients who are readmitted within 30 days with a diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction, heart failure, or pneumonia.

Based on these trends the report found that: "providers will be incented not only to recommend patients use personal health monitoring devices (e.g., glucometers, blood pressure monitors, body composition monitors), aging in place technologies (e.g., remote patient monitoring appliances, home and fall sensors, medication dispensers), and mobile health applications to promote health and wellness, but to actually provide those devices along with services to help consumers use them more effectively."

As healthcare stakeholders leverage telemedicine services to improve access to healthcare, IDC offered several recommendations to telecom providers, advising them to:

-- Leverage core network services but develop healthcare-specific systems. Service providers should use their telecommunications, network management, and hosting service platforms as the foundation to develop programs specifically targeting healthcare.

-- Work with customers to implement meaningful use systems. As healthcare providers implement EHRs that meet meaningful use requirements, which is a prerequisite to qualify for incentive payments, telecom providers should proactively target these clients, help them meet meaningful use criteria, and use the occasion to become a trusted partner for future connected health solutions.

-- Select partners with complementary, future-proof, and interoperable technology. Telecom providers should select vendor technology that is interoperable, easily upgradable, and has a long shelf life. Digitizing patient records will force the integration of disparate technologies, devices, and data sets together.

-- Target self-insured employers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that self-insured employers are quicker to grasp telemedicine's and telehealth's importance in keeping employees healthy and productive and therefore reducing insurance cost for the employer.

-- Engage caregivers who look after a loved one. They have a vested interest in connected health systems that make their task easier (e.g., smart pill boxes that report when medication is taken).

The Healthcare IT Leadership Forum is a day-long venue where senior IT leaders in healthcare come together to discuss how they're using technology to improve clinical care. It happens in New York City on July 12. Find out more.

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