It's well known that we're moving into a "perfect storm" of healthcare-related issues: an aging population, reforms such as the Affordable Health Care Act and an increasing premium on healthcare workers. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. demand for physicians will intensify with a predicted shortage of over 130,000 physicians by 2025.

Yet medical advances and technical innovations, such as mobilization, also represent the perfect intersection of opportunity for healthcare providers and patient/consumer health. In fact, mobile technology is a large part of the curriculum for trainees at the Weston, Mass.-based Regis College School of Nursing, which mandates that every incoming student adopt an iPhone. 

Students at Regis use their mobile devices as reference tools at the point of care and as a way to interface with EMR systems. Face-to-face video conferencing is one more extension of that mobile innovation set to transform how healthcare providers interact.

Today, cloud-based services and Web browsers offer video conferencing access to anyone with a mobile device. That's because technology advancements such as cloud services, wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi, 3G/4G), mobility and browser-based conferencing are making video inexpensive and accessible, moving it closer to the brink of widespread adoption.

Gone are the expensive, underutilized video conferencing rooms found in many hospitals. Such dedicated systems are expensive to maintain, requiring staff expertise and maintenance.

Moreover, dedicated room systems are limited by built-in fixed capacity and an inability to communicate across platforms. For example, a PolyCom user may not be able to communicate with a ShoreTel user and vice-versa.

In contrast, cloud services and browser-based video conferencing allow inexpensive face-to-face interoperability, regardless of the system being used. In a healthcare environment, texting can be crucial in certain situations due to its brevity and fast response times.

However, video conferencing offers a richer, more nuanced collaboration possibility for a wide span of providers, from nurse practitioners and caregivers to neonatologists, cardiologists and other acute-care specialists.

In terms of patient care, video provides access to telemedicine for remote locations that otherwise lack access to care due to distance or other factors. In addition to teledermatology and retinal screening for eyecare, the electronic transmission of images could be beneficial for consultation and examination purposes in other fields of medicine that could utilize video conferencing.

Nurses and care providers, especially, are at the center of an information network related to patient health. Lab results, tests, patient requests and physician interactions all rely on effective contact with these primary caregivers.

In the age of mobility, cloud services and Web access enable clinics and smaller facilities—even doctor's offices—to match the communications capabilities of large hospitals with sophisticated IT teams and ample budgets.

And remember house calls? Physicians can now check in with patients at home who have a smartphone or a PC with Internet access, providing an additional level of assurance for both doctor and patient.

But while the long-term prospects for technological advancements and the wider application of video conferencing in healthcare continue to develop, issues still need to be resolved. Currently, doctors are allowed to consult with patients only in the state in which they're licensed.

This impacts wider adoption, especially in denser regions, such as the East Coast of the U.S., in contrast to the Midwest and Southwest regions. In terms of further deployment, service providers must work with healthcare advocates and professional associations to quantify the benefits of video conferencing and to account for the widely differing healthcare systems.

Physicians' service fees and reimbursements remain a concern and effective payment systems are still being ironed out. The issue involves appropriate patient costs as well as accurate reimbursements for doctors and providers.

Moreover, compliance requirements related to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act), encryption standards and confidentiality regulations all have wider implications in the adoption of video conferencing for healthcare. The challenge rests in enabling physicians and caregivers to have increased capabilities and convenience through sharing information, while also protecting privacy rights of patients and maintaining information integrity for hospitals and related healthcare organizations.

As these issues recede, increased numbers of providers and patients will use video to help them achieve their health goals. In the meantime, other solutions that incorporate video are on the horizon. For example, companies such as HealthSpot seek to change healthcare in the same way that ATMs revolutionized banking. The company has recently introduced the HealthSpot pod.

This portable doctor's office enables physicians to remotely, examine patient symptoms and perform basic diagnostics and treatment-related tasks. Such technological innovations related to e-health are set to improve the delivery of care for patients, providers and doctors. Whether they will succeed in alleviating pressures resulting from the projected U.S. physician shortage remains to be seen.


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