Creating 'Super Docs'

Telemedicine transformation: Creating 'Super Docs'

The nation's top integrated healthcare networks are using telemedicine to "build" a better physician, according to panelists speaking at a May 6 briefing hosted by Healthcare IT News, sister publication of PhysBizTech. The session was part of the American Telemedicine Association's annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

"I've just taken a primary care doctor and turned him into a Super Doc," offered Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist and director of healthcare transformation for Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. "And I can do that with any primary care physician."

Absent the cape, the skin-tight outfit and the phone booth, today's physician has the potential to reach new heights through telemedicine. That's because he or she is becoming a part of an integrated healthcare network that can provide instant access to new tools, resources and experts, thus improving clinical outcomes and reducing wasteful care.

That was the gist of the panel discussion, titled "Connected Care at a Crossroads: How Integrated Healthcare Systems are Using Telemedicine to Coordinate Care." Moderated by Andrew Watson, MD, medical director for the Center for Connected Medicine at UPMC in Pittsburgh, the panel featured Benabio; Donald J. Kosiak, Jr., MD, executive medical director of Avera eCARE for the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Avera Medical Group; and Wesley Valdes, DO, medical director of telehealth and virtual medicine for Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City.

The panelists each explained how their networks are using or planning on using telemedicine to improve the experience for both patient and physician. They were challenged by Watson to prove why such tools and projects are beneficial, in terms of both clinical outcomes and sustainability.

Their response? Telemedicine brings together disparate resources no matter where they're located and pushes healthcare to the consumer, no matter where he or she is located. "[We go] where the patient is," said Benabio.

"It's about care coordination, cost avoidance, putting the pieces together and going to the cloud," added Watson.

For Kosiak, whose network comprises "several tertiary care centers followed by miles and miles and miles of nothingness," telemedicine enables him to bridge the geographical gaps involved in delivering healthcare – in particular, emergency and intensive care services – across the sparsely populated northern Midwest states. Creating that network allows him to bring a specialist into the conversation when an accident victim in a distant farm community needs immediate help.

At Intermountain, meanwhile, Valdes said the system is making a $25 million investment to create a telemedicine infrastructure in the hospitals, before even thinking of moving out to the remote clinics and care centers. The program's goal, he said, is to first make the patient's hospital stay more efficient and cost-effective, then to push care management out beyond the hospital's walls.

"It's really all about the patient and what's best for them," he said.

For Benabio, the goal of telemedicine is to give the primary care physician access to whatever he or she needs to become a better, more efficient healthcare provider.

"It's rewarding because it gives us some sense of autonomy and meaning to what we do," he said.

All four panelists pointed out that telemedicine has the potential to effect large-scale changes in healthcare delivery, and physicians have to be able to adapt to those changes. Since integrated healthcare networks now include health plans, they're taking on some of that risk -- and they're more mindful of the outcomes and the ability to manage healthcare in between patients' trips to the doctor's office or hospital. They're working in patient-centered healthcare, and learning to see the patient as a partner.

"It's a balancing act with telemedicine," Watson said.

Added Valdes, "If we want to transform healthcare, we have to transform ourselves."