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Cisco, UnitedHealth team up to build a national network for virtual doctor visits

Hub of physicians could treat thousands remotely

July 15, 2009 10:01 AM ET

Computerworld - Cisco Systems Inc. announced a joint effort with health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc. today, aiming to create a nationwide network to enable video medical imaging, audio communication and health record information to be exchanged between health care providers and patients from remote locations such as retail stores and office settings.

The two companies will be presenting their pilot health care network to lawmakers in Washington today.

The Connected Care program will use Cisco's HealthPresence networking technology (PDF document) to create real-time connectivity for clinicians. UnitedHealth Group is bringing together medical technology, such as fiber-optic cameras for looking into ears and mouths, as well as electronic stethoscopes and electronic medical records to create a virtual doctor's visit.

The hope is that some day Connected Care will enable real-time connectivity among doctors, nurses, and health system professionals for activities ranging from check-ups to clinician-to-clinician consultation on specific cases, to clinical education. To date, UnitedHealth has spent "tens of millions" of dollars developing the network.

President Barack Obama has set aside $19 billion to create a national electronic health records system, which includes the creation of networks connecting health care providers, pharmacies, laboratories and insurance providers to streamline and improve health care as well as cut costs.

Patients would be connected to health care providers through video conferencing using call center technology.

Dr. Jim Woodburn, UnitedHealth Group's vice president and medical director of telehealth, said while the program is first being targeted at the under served in rural and urban areas, eventually the system could offer any patient access to remote screening and acute illness evaluations. Woodburn said the high bandwidth of Cisco's routers have provide "amazing" high-definition video image quality.

"We're at the beginning of initiative of connecting health care," Woodburn said. "I think the operative perspective is that we're bringing a way to improve the quality of diagnostics in many ways."

Woodburn said UnitedHealth plans to partner with a myriad of medical instrument makers and industry equipment developers to increase the number of procedures that can be applied at remote telemedical facilities. It would also partner with national providers of electronic medical record databases and medical claims processing systems.

Woodburn admitted that many procedures, such as patient check-ups and some examinations, will require physical doctor visits, but the telemedical facilities could greatly reduce the time and cost involved with many other medical procedures.

UnitedHealth Group, an $81 billion health insurer based in East Minnetonka, Minn., has six pilot programs in development for the next year that will explore how telehealth is received in communities across the country. It will also provide insight on using the technology to extend access to health care in a more efficient manner.

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