Healthcare attracting ‘critical mass’ of service providers


Over the past decade or so, the networking firm Cisco has studied how service providers could help build connected healthcare and lower healthcare costs. But, only recently has it seemed more feasible.

For service providers, including telephone companies, Internet and cable companies, cloud service providers, application and data storage providers, the healthcare market is heating up, according to experts at Cisco.

“Healthcare is screaming out for help,” said Chris Osika, senior director and the U.S. service provider global lead for Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group. “It’s a bit of a perfect storm coming together. The market is even more ripe than it was two years ago.”

Right now service providers are experiencing a slowing in growth of their traditional services, and they are aggressively moving toward home monitoring and home security, Osika explained. This will build a delivery platform and "a robust ecosystem" that is perfect for adding healthcare applications, he says.

“There are hundreds of apps and devices that provide wellness advice, deliver medication alerts and monitor blood pressure,” said Tine Christensen, director of the U.S. service provider practice for Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group. “Advances in home networks have enabled sophisticated home testing. Yet, these fragmented methods address only singular elements of patient and ecosystem needs.”

Osika and Tine have co-authored a Cisco white paper, soon to be released, that spells out how service providers could help with healthcare. “Service providers bring a set of distinct assets to the table in the form of building blocks and capabilities that they can use to win in healthcare,” according to Christensen.

For starters, service providers can provide critical mass. Service providers connect and communicate with more than 110 million households on a monthly basis, with 80 percent of them on broadband. Additionally, more than 380 million people are connected to a service provider via mobile phone.

Service providers can also offer interactivity and education, collaboration with health providers, monitoring of chronic conditions and symptoms, and social support systems, she added.

Another area where service providers could help is with hospital readmission. “From Medicare and Medicaid statistics, we know the number of unnecessary hospitalizations is staggering,” Osika said. “Providers can’t visit each person released from the hospital, but service providers could help facilitate the interchanges needed to monitor these patients.”

According to Christensen, some of those applications might include a pill station, connected to the Internet, that tells a doctor whether patients have taken their medication. Other devices include blood pressure and weight monitors and video consults that could allow a clinician to conduct simple visits over the Internet, without sick and elderly patients having to make the trip to the doctor’s office.

These kinds of services could “smooth out the whole process” of healthcare, Christensen says, and would require device manufacturers and data managers to work together.

Despite the ripe opportunity, security fears could pose a roadblock, Osika cautioned. “Healthcare data is one of the most radioactive subjects out there.” Data transmission is very secure now, he says. The most precarious variable is an organization’s behavior toward keeping data safe. “Policy – not technology – is the more difficult challenge,” he added.

Christensen said in the next three years, Americans are more likely to see the kind of holistic services she describes becoming available. At first, patients will probably foot the bill. But after three to five years, healthcare reform will encourage their use within Medicare and Medicaid, and that should spur growth into the private payer market.

“We are thinking this will be a multi-stage process,” Christensen noted. “At first short-term solutions will emerge. As security is built in in layers, it will expand to business-to-business solutions.”

Follow Diana Manos on Twitter @DManos_IT_News.

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