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Multiple Sclerosis: Overcoming Pain

Real World Health Care continues our series on pain management by speaking with Dawn Ehde, PhD, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Ehde serves as a clinical psychologist and professor at UW. She conducts research evaluating the efficacy of various behavioral, exercise, and pharmacological interventions for chronic pain, depression, and/or fatigue in adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) and other acquired neurological conditions.

Dr. Ehde discusses some of her recent clinical and research work on cognitive-behavioral interventions for MS-related pain.

Living with MS and Pain

Real World Health Care: In 2015, you published an article: Utilization and Patients’ Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Pain Treatments in Multiple Sclerosis. Can you summarize the key results of your study and the implications for patients with MS?

Dawn Ehde, PhD, University of Washington School of Medicine

Dawn Ehde: We conducted this survey to learn more about pain management from the perspective of people living with MS and pain. We found that people with MS and pain try a lot of different treatments to manage pain, but few treatments provide adequate pain relief.

Nonprescription medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories and physical modalities such as massage were some of the most common methods used. Many use more than one treatment to manage pain. Some of the treatments that individuals rated as most helpful, such as hypnosis, were infrequently used. In fact, we found that very few people surveyed had tried or accessed behavioral pain treatments such as training in mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral self-management, or self-hypnosis. This was the case even though there is good evidence that these types of treatments are beneficial to many people with chronic pain, including MS, and have few or no negative side effects. This study highlighted for me the need to improve access to these types of non-pharmacological pain management.

Integrated Care Approach

RWHC: Are you currently involved in any other research relating to pain management in MS patients?

DE: We have several studies in various stages that address pain management in MS. We recently published a study that found that an eight-session telephone-delivered self-management intervention was effective in reducing pain (both its severity and its interference with activities) and fatigue. It also was effective in improving mood, quality of life, and resilience. The benefits were maintained at 6- and 12-month follow ups. Patient satisfaction with the treatment was high as well.

The study I am most excited about is the MS Care study, which is a comparative effectiveness trial that evaluated the benefits of an integrated care approach to pain and depression management in the clinic called “collaborative care.” The MS version, called “MS Care,” aims to improve the quality of pain care in the clinic by adding an MS Care manager to coordinate care, deliver brief behavioral treatments, initiate or adjust other medical treatments, and ensure patients do not slip through the cracks. We also offer patients the choice of getting their care management by phone or in person. Seventy-five percent chose the phone. We found that patients with chronic pain and/or depression randomly assigned to MS Care had significantly improved pain and depression symptoms, including less severe pain, less interference, less disability, and less fatigue. Additional details on the results are available at http://www.uwmscare.org/background.

Opportunities in MS Pain Research

RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing researchers who are studying pain management in MS patients? How can those challenges be overcome?

DE: I actually see a lot of opportunities as an MS pain researcher. The MS community is interested in improving pain management and supporting research in this area. For example, the National MS Society has named pain as one of its research priorities. We also often find people with MS are willing participants in our research, both as participants as well as stakeholders who guide us in our research. For example, we used stakeholders to guide our MS Care study. At times, we have had to work hard to convince potential funders that pain is an issue that warrants funding and study, but that has improved in the time that I’ve been doing research. We have come a long way since I first started in this area, when pain was not always recognized as an important problem deserving attention in MS.

Challenges for MS Clinicians

RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing clinicians who are treating MS patients with pain management problems?

DE: MS presents many different symptoms to manage, and thus both patients and clinicians have a lot to discuss and manage in the typical clinic appointment. One challenge is that pain management is often only one of several issues being addressed. As such, it may be difficult to fully manage a complex issue like chronic pain. I think these challenges may be overcome by rethinking how we approach and deliver pain care. We need to look at harnessing technology — including telehealth technologies — to improve care. We also need to empower patients and the MS community to recognize that pain management is something that requires active self-management and multimodal strategies.

Pain Management Therapies

RWHC: What do you see as the most promising pharmaceutical therapies for treating pain in MS patients? What are the caveats that must be understood by clinicians when prescribing such therapies?

DE: As a psychologist, I’m less able to speak to promising pharmaceutical therapies on the horizon. However, I think there are promising practices for how we deliver pain care, including medications and other rehabilitation interventions. We did manage medications in our MS Care study, and our goal within that was to promote the appropriate and effective use of pain medications and other medications that can benefit pain management, such as some of the antidepressants which have analgesic benefits. We know from our research that too often, patients get started on a treatment, perhaps at a “low dose,” and for whatever reason, they don’t have adequate follow up to adjust, intensify, or change treatment plan. In the MS Care study, we closely and quickly followed patients’ pain and adjusted treatments to optimize their benefits or switched treatments if needed. We also know that physical activity — whether it is physical therapy or encouraging physical activity — benefits people with MS and likely helps with pain management.

RWHC: Do you see a role for non-pharmaceutical pain management therapies in treating pain in patients with MS?

DE: Certainly. This is where I’ve spent most of my energy, not only because I am a psychologist, but also because many people with MS want to use non-pharmacological therapies and strategies. The people with MS I know and our stakeholders are eager to advance our understanding and use of non-pharmacological treatments such as mindfulness meditation, relaxation, and cognitive behavioral coping skills.

Partnering with Patients

RWHC: What initially got you interested in this field? What continues to inspire you?

DE: I have had family and friends with MS, and thus was drawn to learning more about MS. I started out conducting chronic pain research in people where chronic pain such as headaches was the primary problem. When I started working with patients with MS clinically, I was struck by how little we knew about MS pain management and how people with MS pain were not accessing care we knew was helpful in other pain populations.

I’ve been inspired and continue to be inspired by the people with MS whom we’ve partnered with to conduct our research. Our best research has resulted from partnering with people living with MS. They’ve also taught me a lot about resiliency. Although MS can present many challenges like pain, many people with MS and pain live full, meaningful and happy lives.

I also have been fortunate to have training grants from the National MS Society, which have allowed me to train postdoctoral fellows in MS and rehabilitation research. They represent the next generation of clinical researchers in pain and symptom management in MS.

A Leap Forward for Virtual Health Care

Have you ever sat in a doctor’s office waiting room wishing your physician could have visited you at home? In many states, physicians can now conduct evaluations directly through your laptop, smart phone, or tablet, and patients are responding with enthusiasm.

Roy Schoenberg, MD, MPH

Roy Schoenberg, MD, MPH

However, medical boards in some states have adhered to older rules that prevent use of telemedicine. A recent development will balance their legitimate concerns about abuse of this technology with its immense benefits, enabling states to realize the promise of telehealth in possibly reducing health care costs and improving patient outcomes.

In April, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) adopted new policy guidelines for the safe practice of telemedicine. States finally have a basic roadmap for ensuring that patients are protected in this fast-changing health care delivery environment. The new guidelines provide much-needed clarity on “Do’s and Don’ts” in the use of telehealth technology when practicing medicine and frame the principles of operation that must be adhered to in order to preserve patient safety and quality of care. They offer a detailed framework needed to revise outdated rules. I expect many state medical boards to tailor the guidelines to meet their own perspectives and cultures moving forward, but as a whole, health care will take these new rules as sign of the times and modernize to embrace telehealth.

In an event such as this, it is important to take a step back and acknowledge history in the making. The unanimous ratification of these new guidelines is probably the strongest message the house of delegates of the FSMB could have sent; decisive leadership such as this is impressive and rare. Telehealth adoption will come when people gain clarity that it is a safe and valuable way to deliver care; the FSMB has done a terrific job in preparing the landscape for large-scale use of telehealth.

The fact that the FSMB did not make any changes to the definition of telehealth is not an oversight. In fact, on the contrary, it is a reflection of the great diversity in this technology. Ten years ago, telemedicine was only a construct between physicians. Today, we have telehealth with multiple end points between patients, mobile health, wearable devices, home biometrics, health care kiosks, e-visits of sorts, etc. The FSMB tried to keep definitions very high-level in order to prevent these important guidelines from becoming obsolete over time, as many other guidelines and rules have before.

There are still barriers to the widespread adoption of telehealth. State licensure of physicians limits how helpful the technology can be to spread health care services to where they are challenged. Reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid is essentially nonexistent, mostly because of the unknown impact on future costs. Physicians are still afraid they will be sanctioned if they don’t examine a patient in-person. There are more examples like these. The good news is that these barriers are quickly eroding. Most importantly, patients – our industry’s main customer – love telehealth.

In the end, the people will prove stronger than the industry’s outdated rules, and the floodgates will open. In ten more years, the term telehealth will be gone, and this technology will simply be an integrated part of mainstream health care.

Please share your perspective in the comments section below.

Virtual Health Care: Your Questions Answered by a Telehealth Pioneer

If you follow the latest developments in health care, you may have noticed: telehealth has taken off. Our country is focused on making health care more accessible for Americans, and naturally, telehealth has emerged as a key innovation that can help to make this a reality. It’s an effective way to deliver evidence-based medicine – and it’s something that we as physicians can embrace right now.

Dr. Peter Antall

Dr. Peter Antall

As President and Medical Director of the world’s first telehealth practice, Online Care Group, I’m often asked a handful of common questions about telehealth. Here, I share the most common questions and my answers with Real World Health Care’s readers.

What is telehealth?

To me, telehealth is simple. Telehealth is a live video visit between a doctor and a patient from home or work. This differs from traditional telemedicine, which mainly connected hospital facilities to each other and relied on big, expensive hardware in clinical locations.

With telehealth, the patient can have a video visit with a doctor using every day consumer technologies that are becoming ubiquitous: a smartphone, tablet, or computer. There are other forms of telehealth on the market that use only phone or secure email; however, these visits do not allow for the same level of clinical patient evaluation. I have met with medical boards and associations across the country and found that live video is greatly preferred because it represents the closest interaction comparable to an in-person visit.

Do patients really want to talk to a doctor virtually?

For starters, let me just ask you when was the last time you shopped, banked, booked travel, made a dinner reservation, filed your taxes, or communicated with friends and family online. Chances are – if you’re like many Americans – you’ve done more than one of these things today, probably on your phone or tablet.

While the health care industry has done a great job of supplying information to patients online and has even started to offer patients the opportunity to book appointments online, information and scheduling stop short of what patients want and expect from health care: quality interactions with clinicians. To date, health care ‘transactions’ have only occurred at the intersection of a physical location and the supply of available clinicians. The industry can do better.

Over the last several years, a number of studies have shown that patients are rapidly warming to the concept of interacting with doctors online. Estimates suggest that half to three-quarters of Americans are interested in online consults, and I’d expect this number to grow as more patients have access to telehealth services and as more doctors offer such services to patients.

If you think about the patient experience today, it’s not surprising that most folks respond so positively to the value of telehealth. Consider the national average wait time to see a doctor of 18.5 days, not to mention the excessive wait time in certain urban and rural areas. And once you’re in the doctor’s office, that wait can be long, too, which you know if you’ve ever spent two or three hours in an urgent care clinic or emergency room waiting to be seen. Retail clinics are an option, but these are generally not staffed by a doctor and are often not available outside of normal business hours.

On the other hand, a patient can see a doctor in just a few minutes from their phone or tablet. For example, our wait times at the Online Care Group currently average less than 2.5 minutes, and there’s no appointment or travel required. So it’s not surprising that 97% of patients rate the service “very good” or “excellent”.

How do you examine a patient during a telehealth visit?

Examining a patient through video is different from in-person, though the fundamental rules of medicine still apply. The most important elements of any consultation – online or in-person – is taking a thorough history, asking plenty of questions, and doing a visual examination. Having a video connection with a patient is really important in helping to understand the patient’s overall demeanor and level of discomfort and stress, just as in the exam room. This gives me great insight into the patient’s physical and mental well-being. In terms of a physical exam, I’ve developed protocols to help our doctors guide patients through self-exams in order to provide empirical feedback that’s useful in making certain diagnoses.

One of our main tenets is that doctors must use their own clinical discretion when treating patients online. Our physicians diagnose and treat only when enough data can be ascertained in the video consultation to do so. If not, our physicians triage the patient and refer out for in-person care. That may mean seeing their doctor in-person, going to the emergency room, or ordering tests at a local health center.

What about security issues?

As with brick-and-mortar medicine, it is extremely important to protect patient health information. The information regarding a patient’s health should remain private between the physician and the patient and be stored securely, in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). American Well provides a secure space for patients to safely and confidentially consult with a doctor online. This is imperative for an effective and safe telehealth practice.

What does telehealth have to offer me as a doctor?

Telehealth is not only convenient for patients; it offers doctors flexibility at work, reliable pay, and access to new patients. And not only individual and group practices, but even large medical practices and hospitals, are starting to use telehealth to attract and retain patients and to expand their reach.

By incorporating telehealth, hospitals under accountable care organization (ACO) contracts, or otherwise caring for patients under capitation, reap the financial benefits of having healthier patients. Private offices can offer open access and after-hours care or designate that a subset of visits, like medication follow-up, be managed through telehealth. Practices can also bring in other specialties virtually into their office, like certified diabetes educators, dieticians, or behavioral health specialists.

Can I make money with telehealth?

There is high demand from patients for urgent-care-like telehealth services. Today, physicians across the country – including those in our national telehealth practice – make a very good living practicing medicine online, providing care anywhere from 10-40 hours per week.

Another option is for doctors to offer telehealth to their existing patients. In many states, doctors are already being reimbursed for services delivered to their own patients by including GT modifiers in their billing (this modifier is used to indicate telehealth services via interactive audio and video telecommunication systems). Currently 20 states mandate private payer reimbursement for telehealth services and 45 states reimburse for some telehealth services. As our doctors move from fee-for-service to capitated payment models under the Affordable Care Act, they are absorbing the risk (“rewarded for performance,” as some might say). Telehealth is one way to improve efficacy and efficiency of patient care. Telehealth lets doctors increase the number of touch points for patients, which potentially can improve outcomes as well.

Is telehealth the future of healthcare?

Telehealth isn’t really a new form of healthcare; it is the same healthcare that Americans are using every day, delivered in a faster, less expensive, more convenient way. Although not everything can be treated via telehealth, it’s a great option for many types of acute care, chronic care, behavioral health, and wellness services. Patients, doctors, hospital systems, employers, insurers, regulators, and legislators are all rapidly changing the way they view health care in order to incorporate telehealth. In the coming months, the proof that telehealth is here to stay will become even more evident. It’s time to embrace the now of health care.

Have you ever used telehealth? Would you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

If you have any questions or to learn more about where and how I practice telehealth, email me at peter.antall@americanwell.com.

Dr. Antall is the Medical Director of Online Care Group, a physician-owned primary care group that offers its clinical services online using American Well’s technology. American Well’s web and mobile telehealth platform connects patients and clinicians for live, clinically meaningful visits through video, supplemented by secure text chat and phone. For more information, visit AmericanWell.com

Categories: Access to Care

Four benefits of electronic health records

Leaders from industry, academia, and health care discuss the rollout of this technology at The Atlantic’s sixth annual Health Care Forum

Today The Atlantic Health Care Forum brought together leading policymakers and industry experts in medicine, public health, and nutrition to have conversations about the state of the nation’s health care system. The event was sponsored by Siemens, Surescripts, WellPoint, GSK and PhRMA. Real World Health Care attended to share insights from the panel “Health Care Tomorrow: Examining the Tools and Technologies that Will Revolutionize the Future Health Care System.”

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Much of the discussion centered around electronic health records, which are increasingly being rolled out in huge hospital systems after the federal government incentivized their adoption to the tune of billions of dollars five years ago. Four themes emerged from the panel, which included top executives from Johns Hopkins Medicine, athenahealth, PhRMA, and Carolinas HealthCare System.

 

1. Enhancing collaboration.

Electronic health records facilitate a team-based approach to hospital care, as well as allowing for better coordination between hospital systems. “What we’re going to see is it’s going to drive team-based clinical care because everyone in the system will have access to the same medical records,” said Dr. Paul Rothman, Dean of the Medical Faculty and Vice President for Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University and Chief Executive Officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “You’re going to see an [increased] level of collaboration not only between delivery systems, but also between the patient and the health care provider.”

However, Ed Park, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, athenahealth, warned that the decades-old technologies that many hospital systems are using are limited in their capabilities. “The current crop of [electronic health records] are documentation tools instead of care management tools,” he said, adding that they are primarily for use by insurers and lawyers. “What I fear is health systems beginning to buy their way into their own prisons that are built of their own IT…as opposed to dealing in an open environment,” he said.

 

2. Enabling patient-centered care.

Electronic health records enable patients to reap greater benefits from telehealth. “Having your information on your iPhone: that’s not far away,” Dr. Rothman said. “[Patients are] going to do EKG’s at home. They’re going to be measuring their blood sugar at home. The patient will have control of the data.”

Electronic records also hold the promise of helping to solve age-old problems in the U.S. health care system, including keeping contact with patients to encourage them to take prescribed treatment regimens. “There is almost $350 billion a year in inefficiency because of lack of compliance and adherence with medications,” said John Castellani, President and Chief Executive Officer, PhRMA. “If you could just get an improvement in whether patients take the medicines that are prescribed, you could capture this great savings.”

“You have kids who have kidney transplants, and you can give them reminders on Facebook that they have to take their medications,” Dr. Rothman added.

 

3. Targeting therapies for increased success.

Electronic medical records can help health care providers ensure that they prescribe the treatments most likely to work for their patients.

“What I think is the promise of electronic medical records is our ability to find subsets of diseases through the broad diseases we treat,” Dr. Rothman said. “Asthma isn’t one disease. Obesity isn’t one disease. Diabetes isn’t one disease. We are going to be able to find subsets of diseases and target therapies [that work]. That’s when you’re going to see efficiency and return on investment.”

 

4. Harnessing the power of big data.

Our health care system has already begun to see the benefits of ‘big data’ with examples such as the discovery of drug side effects and interactions through mining consumer web search data. “We have to use the technologies to bring down the cost of the drug discovery process,” Castellani said.

“Just taking care of the patient, we capture data,” said Dr. Roger Ray, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Carolinas HealthCare System. “That allows us to know when a patient…may be at risk for hospital readmission. Having the ability to mine [data]…makes a difference for patients.

“We all, each of us, remember with longing a simpler time when we could scribble and walk off and our job was done,” he added. “What we know now is that’s not very good for the patient. We had no standardization allowing us to help patients avoid lots of different bad outcomes they could have.”

 

Have electronic medical records impacted your health or that of your patients? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Telehealth Opens Doors to Enhance Health Outcomes and Reduce Costs

Telehealth solutions are making significant inroads to reverse high health care expenditures and reduce noncompliance with prescription therapies – issues that especially impact those living with chronic disease.

By engaging patients in health education through classes, patient portals, real-time patient-provider consultations, online discussion forums and more, telehealth strategies empower providers to monitor disease progression and intervene with patients at an earlier stage, when conditions may be more easily treated.

A digital conduit that delivers medical care, health education, and public health services, telehealth connects multiple users in separate locations. Telehealth services consist of diagnosis, treatment, assessment, monitoring, communications and education. It includes a broad range of telecommunications, health information, videoconferencing, and digital image technologies.

And what’s best of all? Telehealth is working in many situations. Here are a few examples:

Case Study #1: Telehealth plays an instrumental role in supporting the care of veteran patients with chronic conditions. They are part of a national program from the US Veterans Health Administration to coordinate the care of veterans with chronic conditions at home and avoid unnecessary admission to long-term institutional care. The program included the systematic implementation of health informatics, home telehealth, and disease management technologies for six conditions including diabetes mellitus, congestive heart failure, hypertension, posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression.

Patients involved in the program benefitted from a 25 percent reduction in the number of bed days of care and a 20 percent reduction in hospital readmissions. According to a study of the program, the basis for reduced utilization of health care resources for the patients involved was due to the program’s foundation in patient self-management, disease management and the use of virtual visits.

Case Study #2: At Partners HealthCare in Boston, a home telehealth program focusing on cardiac care resulted in a 50 percent reduction in heart failure hospital readmissions, for a total cost savings of more than $10 million since 2006. The Connected Cardiac Care Program is a centralized telemonitoring and self-management and preventive care program for heart failure patients that combines telemonitoring with nurse intervention and care coordination, coaching and education. The daily transmission of weight, heart rate, pulse and blood pressure data by patients enables providers to more effectively assess patient status and provide just-in-time care and patient education.

Patients in the program use equipment – a home monitoring device with peripherals to collect weight, blood pressure, and heat rate measurements, and a touch-screen computer to answer questions about symptoms – on a daily basis for four months. Telemonitoring nurses monitor these vitals, respond to out-of-parameter alerts, and guide patients through structured biweekly heart failure education.

Cost to the patients? Zero.

Case Study #3: A telehealth strategy using webinars had a small but “positive impact on hypertensive patients” in Brazil, in terms of their adherence to antihypertensive drugs, low salt diet and physical activity. The program was managed by Family Health Teams (FHTs) consisting of doctors, nurses, nurse technicians and community health agents. According to researchers studying the program, the vast majority of practitioners do not specialize in primary care, and only recently have specialized courses emerged to provide that training.

“Given the country’s continental dimensions, high demand, and inadequate amount of training and continuing education centers for primary care professionals, telehealth presents itself as a promising strategy to improve access to training, leading to the improvement of hypertension,” they noted.

Despite growing evidence that telehealth is working for more and more patients, concerns remain about security, privacy and medical liability, with critics also arguing that telehealth lacks common standards. Government agencies, they say, have often been slow to reimburse patients for many telehealth services. Further, some health professionals argue that telehealth threatens to compromise the doctor-patient relationship.

Tell us what you think. Do the advantages of telehealth outweigh possible drawbacks? Have you leveraged telehealth services, either as a patient or provider?

For more information on how telehealth is changing the concept of health care delivery, dowload the White Paper from Tunstall Americas: “Telehealth Solutions Enhance Health Outcomes and Reduce Healthcare Costs.”

Categories: Cost-Savings