Telepresence Challenges Medical Practice Models

Cisco finds doctors must alter reimbursement and scheduling practices to gain benefits of videoconferencing.

Nicole Lewis, Contributor

July 23, 2010

3 Min Read

This week Cisco announced that it has joined with OneCommunity, a nonprofit broadband service provider in northern Ohio, to provide Cisco technologies for projects in healthcare, education, and technology.

OneCommunity will provide a range of Cisco collaborative technology solutions including telepresence, healthpresence, and WebEx services, to select schools and colleges to enable doctor visits to be conducted remotely by video. Cisco's technology will make possible regular assessments of students' health using high-definition video, advanced audio, and network-transmitted medical data.

The announcement demonstrates how Cisco's telepresence technology can help doctors use videoconferencing to have an in-person-meeting experience to quickly diagnose patients in distant locations or consult with colleagues. However, that opportunity can be lost if doctors don't effectively coordinate with their colleagues and patients as they work around using a technology that requires a different physician scheduling model.

In a recent interview with InformationWeek, Dr. Kaveh Safavi, VP and global lead for Cisco's healthcare practice, said that while the lack of a reimbursement model and reduced broadband connectivity in remote locations across the United States are challenges to the adoption of Cisco's telepresence, changing the physician practice model to take advantage of the technology is another significant challenge.

"One of the things we've discovered is doctors have to change the way they practice medicine to take advantage of this form of technology," said Safavi. "We spend a fair amount of our time on that conversation, probably more than people expect or appreciate because they're so used to just buying technology, plugging it in, and seeing that it works."

According to Safavi, videoconferencing sessions demand that doctors organize their time not only with patients but often with other specialists as well, and this can be a difficult task.

"If a doctor wants to connect to a specialist, how are they going to know that the specialist is going to be available? Are specialists going to change the way they work their time? How do you organize around that?" Safavi said. "You have to start thinking about how do you organize a group of doctors for unpredictable demand. It really is a very different design issue than a traditional physician office appointment model," Safavi added.

Nevertheless, Cisco executives believe that the shifting healthcare environment will demand that doctors increasingly use telepresence technology. They point to the federal government's expectation that an additional 32 million people will seek health insurance coverage under the new healthcare reform law, while at the same time a shortage of doctors persists. Cisco is banking on the need for more doctors to use videoconferencing as they collaborate with each other and coordinate the exchange of information to bridge the gap in healthcare.

"You're never going to solve that problem by trying to train doctors. You're going to have to figure out how to use technology to create scale and to use our resources to reach more patients," Safavi said.

Healthcare delivery organizations are also operating with tighter budgets, and while the reimbursement argument matters for some, telepresence technology can defray costs in other areas.

"A number of hospitals are thinking about the investment as an alternative to the capital expense of building clinics or emergency rooms," Safavi said. "Many of them say even if the reimbursement isn't perfect, I can figure out how to make this work because I have other economic considerations that justify this and that actually cover the cost," Safavi added.

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