How 'Telehealth' Can Reduce America's Health Care Spending

Say goodbye to the doctor's office, and hello to your personal computer. According to a new report released by the Commonwealth Fund, "telehealth" - programs in which doctors and nurses use electronic medical data to remotely monitor and check in with their patients - has led to significant reductions in hospital re-admissions and bed days among early adopters such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The study's authors emphasized that effective telehealth programs "take time" to implement, citing the training needed to familiarize care providers with the new technology. But by improving patient monitoring, telehealth has the potential to keep Americans healthier by making sure they're complying with their treatment regimens:

Followers also are counseled to be patient. "Successful programs can take time to scale successfully," the authors said. "It takes time to integrate technology into care delivery and allow staff to adapt." The VA's Care Coordination/Home Telehealth program targeting chronically ill veterans, for example, was launched in 2003. Now, with 70,000 veterans receiving home telehealth care, the program boasts patient satisfaction levels greater than 85%.

In a data sample from 2004 through 2007, the VA reported reductions in bed days of care across all eight targeted chronic conditions, ranging from a 20% drop for the nearly 9,000 enrolled diabetes patients to a 56% decrease for the nearly 340 patients then receiving home health monitoring for depression, and a 45% drop for nearly 140 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Partners [HealthCare] has had 1,200 patients enrolled thus far in its Connected Cardiac Care Program since its launch as a pilot study in 2006. It has "consistently experienced an approximate 50% reduction in health failure-related readmission rates for enrolled patients," according to the Commonwealth reporters, with an estimated savings in utilization of about $10 million.

In recent months, an increasing number of hospitals and government institutions have turned to technology in an effort to reduce health costs while improving patient care. Minnesota recently established an online "bulletin board" tracking the available flu shots in the state; studies have shown that telemedical procedures for women taking abortion-inducing medication are just as effective as having a doctor physically present; and a large part of the way that Obamacare seeks to reduce national health expenditures is through the institutionalization of electronic medical records.

But telehealth procedures targeted towards patient monitoring hold particular promise for improving patients' health by curbing unnecessary hospitalizations - particularly for elderly Americans. That's because studies have shown that a large portion of excessive medical spendingstems from patients taking their medications incorrectly or not following their treatment regimens. By allowing health workers to have up-to-the minute access to their patients, telehealth could go a long way towards reversing that trend.

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