Health News Digest

April 11, 2011

Telecommunications Can Improve Health Care

Networked health

By  Michael D. Shaw

It was way back in 1597 that Sir Francis Bacon—founder of what we now call the Scientific Method—observed that “Knowledge is power.” One wonders what he would have thought of our modern Information Superhighway. More to the point, how can this rapidly developing technology be leveraged to improve all aspects of health care?

There are many facets to this, of course, but for now, let us concentrate on these three…

  • Obtaining accurate and high-quality health information on the Internet
  • Using telemedicine to improve patient care—especially in rural areas
  • Employing cloud telephony in clinical settings

Doctors frequently complain about the incomplete or even flat-out wrong information that patients might bring to them, garnered from a Web search. Related to this is the often self-aggrandizing information provided “as a service” by pharmaceutical companies.

In 1997, the Health Improvement Institute held its first workshop regarding the quality of health information on the Internet. Ten years later, a much expanded workshop convened, in light of the fact that in 2007, approximately 113-160 million people searched for health information on the Internet. The participants noted that substandard information could affect people and actually damage, rather than improve their health; as Internet usage grew, the information presented would need to apply to a more diverse audience; and that so-called trustmarks aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

Recommendations coming out of the 2007 workshop included the following:

  • Personalize online health information to cater to consumers’ specific needs
  • Integrate the use of health information on the Internet with the provision of health care
  • Encourage health websites to identify themselves with company information, and to improve consumer privacy
  • Educate consumers to continue seeking information from trusted sources
  • Develop methods for the awarding and certification of trustmarks

I would add one more: Search out many diverse sources of information, and then carefully compare the information presented. While medicine is both an art and a science, scientific truth is verifiable and can always be duplicated.

The American Telemedicine Association defines “telemedicine” as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients’ health status. Related to this is the notion of “telehealth,” which suggests a broader deployment of remote health care that does not always involve clinical services.

Telemedicine and telehealth take advantage of videoconferencing and transmission of still images, along with the more Internet related e-health facilities of patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education, and nursing call centers.

Champions of the American health care system often point with pride to the easy availability of top-notch services, when compared to every other country. However, such ready access is expensive, and even then is mostly confined to large urban areas. Yet, health care providers in rural areas—already economically-challenged—must be able to offer quality care to their patients, as well.

Fortunately, there are now telemedicine networks, that link tertiary care hospitals with community health centers in rural and suburban areas. In addition, cost savings are realized with shared staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays. Proponents of telemedicine emphasize that consumers like it, and many studies indicate that the public wants to see it expand.

Cloud telephony brings a host of business phone services, formerly available only to the largest customers, to virtually any setting. Gone are the days in which staggering investments in hardware and software are required to take advantage of the best in telephone technology.

Of interest in the health care field is the ability to broadcast call appointment reminders, and set up appointments via interactive voice response (IVR). Another attractive functionality lets the provider link its database with incoming calls.

One of the more innovative companies in cloud telephony is Sunnyvale, CA-based Invox Corporation. Invox’s Sam Ambati described a few of their services, in a recent interview.

A feature-rich hosted PBX system can be created online via drag and drop, utilizing existing phone lines as well as Google Voice, Skype, and others. Their Push 2 Call enables any organization to offer a local number in more than 40 countries—an ideal solution for cash-strapped non-profits and smaller pharmaceutical companies wishing to engage the international community. Invox’s Call 360 provides enhanced called ID information, that could be a lifesaver as a hospital or doctor’s office fields incoming calls.

It was trendy in the 1960s and 70s to blame many of society’s ills on communications problems. These days, we are empowered (Thanks, Sir Francis) to cure some of these ills with enhanced telecommunications.