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

Hub of physicians could treat thousands remotely

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.

UnitedHealth Group said that among its first implementations is a partnership with the international health education and humanitarian assistance organization Project HOPE. A Connected Care mobile clinic will help residents across four counties in New Mexico obtain health screenings and treatment as part of that partnership. The program will have a focus on identifying and addressing diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Cisco and UnitedHealth Group said they have already successfully tested the telehealth program in a pilot with more than 300 Cisco employees in San Jose over a seven-month period. The employees used primary-care physicians in Los Angeles to address real medical issues. Cisco said 90% of the participants indicated they would recommend the program to others.

Cisco is currently piloting another program with its 4,000 employees in its Raleigh, N.C. facility, who will have telehealth access to five primary care physicians located in its San Jose corporate Care Center medical facility.

Frances Dare, director in the health care consulting practice for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, said the telehealth technology is changing hthe game in that historically telemedicine has been thought of only as a way to provide care where none is available otherwise, but some of some of the patients in Cisco's pilot program preferred the telepresence-based interaction with the care provider because it was information-rich.

"So while the gold standard for a patient experience in the past has been a face to face encounter with a doctor. That may well change with some of these technologies," Dare said. "And if the new gold standard is that media-rich interaction using telepresence and other technologies, it completely redefines how I get care, when I get care and who provides my care."

Dr. Pam Hymel, senior director of corporate medical programs for Cisco, said remote telemedical facilities in retail or corporate -- even government facilities -- would be less expensive in that they could be staffed with a nurse or medical assistant who can then use the biomedical equipment for a physician to diagnose ailments.

Hymel cited estimates by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicting that the U.S. will be short 159,000 primary care physicians by 2025 because of the country's growing population and a lack of interest by medical students to enter into primary care.

With a telemedice network, the health care providers that are part of a patient's continuum of care -- the primary care physicians, the hospitals, the clinics, the home health care providers -- can be connected at any point of time, Hymel said.

"So it's a central hub of health care providers to contend with the underserved. This is a great opportunity to increase accessibility, affordability and quality of care," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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