Web Conferencing: Just What the Doctor Ordered

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April 13, 2009

By Joe Mullich

It's no surprise that businesspeople view web conferencing as a cost-effective alternative to in-person meetings and trade shows. But who would imagine online meetings offer a better way to treat obesity or expand the use of new surgical techniques that can save countless lives?

"Web 2.0 technologies are beginning to change the practice of medicine," says Lynne A. Dunbrack, program director for Health Industry Insights, a market research and advisory firm in Framingham, MA. "We now have a significant number of doctors who grew up with the Internet, and they want to use online collaboration technology to keep up with the relentless demands for ever-greater speed and efficiency."

The rise of online video and web conferencing for medicine is part of an overall embrace of information technology by the healthcare industry. Although critics say the healthcare industry has been slow to change paper-based record keeping and other manual medical processes, the use of online video via the web by physicians, technicians and their patients has increased dramatically.

The technology, experts say, offers doctors a means to keep up with exploding volumes of information and attend to patients who live far away or have other issues that make them difficult to treat in conventional ways.

Online Training

Randy Marc Lasnick, director of marketing for Lumedx Corp., a maker of cardiovascular information and imaging systems, is at the nexus of virtual medicine. Among other products, the Oakland, CA, company offers "physician portals," aimed at helping doctors enhance patient care and improve efficiency by providing a single location for information about each patient's procedures, prescriptions and medical procedures.

But as useful as the new technology was, doctors – who lose income every moment they are away from their practice – didn't have time to attend presentations to learn it. So Lumedx set up a series of web conferences using Cisco WebEx Meeting Center to offer training – and participation soared.

"When we did in-person conferences, about 25 to 50 people would come," Lasnick says. "With the online presentations, the attendance runs from 50 to 200 for an event."

Expanding Use of Online Information

The use of web conferencing has the potential to indirectly benefit patients by providing them with more time with their doctors.  A 2008 study by Manhattan Research found that physicians who conduct web conferences with pharmaceutical sales representatives were able to see nearly 24 percent more patients than those who didn't.

 "This isn't necessarily a case of cause-and-effect, where the video is freeing up more time for the doctors," Levy says. "However, these results suggest that doctors who immerse themselves in online media and open themselves to new channels for gathering information are much more efficient overall."

A key finding was that doctors expressed satisfaction with the web-conferencing technology. "That is quite unusual for a new or re-emerging technology," Levy says. "It marks both improvements in the technology itself and in the doctors having a greater sense of what information they need and how they can use online mechanisms to get it."

Drive for Efficiency

The growing acceptance of online technology may provide a way for physicians to keep up with the explosion of medical knowledge, which doubles every 18 months, as well overcome the industry's fragmented system for dispersing that information.

"Healthcare is really a cottage industry, with the approximately 5,000 hospitals across the United States each its own operation, largely isolated from the others," says Jonathan Small, vice president of communications for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), a not-for-profit organization based in Cambridge, MA. "Studies indicate that when a more effective clinical procedure is identified through research, it takes 17 years to spread across the whole industry."

IHI is using Cisco WebEx web conferencing to dramatically shorten these time frames. The organization is launching programs called "Sprints" aimed at promoting adoption of new techniques in less than 90 days. Because of the convenience of online meetings using Cisco WebEx Training Center and Event Center, IHI is able to gain greater participation from key individuals at hospitals across many geographies.

IHI is encouraging all US hospitals to try the World Health Organization (WHO) Surgical Safety Checklist – a process similar to how pilots check off items before a flight to ensure safety. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that hospitals that used the checklist reduced the number of complication following major operations by 40 percent. So far, more than 900 hospitals have signed on.

"There would simply have been no way to get a significant number of people to travel to meetings to learn about this initiative," Small says. "This effort simply wouldn't have been possible without virtual technology."

WebEx for Patient Care

The drive for efficiency may extend web conferencing to treatment as well. As Dunbrack notes, hospitals are just now turning to web conferencing for clinical uses such as allowing specialists to do remote consultations in emergency settings. "This is a very promising way to address a lot of pressing industry problems, like treatment in rural areas, but the reimbursement issues remain a major stumbling block," she says.

Initially, web conferencing for treatment has primarily focused on support groups. A pioneer in this area is Cardiometabolic Support Network (CMSN), a web-based obesity treatment program developed by Dr. Louis J. Aronne, Director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York Presbyterian Weill-Cornell Medical Center, and key leaders in the treatment and management of obesity and cardiometabolic risk.  CMSN's innovative model provides expert advice and support to patients through an expert assessment and uses WebEx to deliver live online group meetings moderated by registered dietitians.

As a core feature of the program, the virtual meetings go far beyond chat rooms, using WebEx web-conferencing technology to deliver the program using slides, videos or documents during group discussions. The patients in the pilot program, who have continued to work with their primary healthcare providers to manage obesity-related conditions like diabetes, "have seen an average weight loss of 18 lbs," says Dr. Aronne.

Extending New Services to New Patients

Participants in the New York-based pilot program log in from across the country. "Without web conferencing, it would be impossible to create a large-scale program that can be used to cost-effectively reach thousands," he says. "We can deliver our expertise over a broader geographic area and the patients save time and travel expenses."

Web conferencing may also allow the medical community to reach patients who are reticent to seek treatment in person. The online venture is modeled after scientifically proven programs and effective in-person clinical programs, where 90 percent of the participants are typically women. Online, where people's identities remain confidential, the enrollment has been split equally between men and women.  "It is a safe place for men to share," Dr. Aronne says. "They can talk about their experiences, challenges and even share recipes in a safe place without revealing their identities to the group."

Studies have shown that online medicine can be as effective as in-person treatment, but as Dr. Aronne points out, "a key thing the studies also indicate is the online experience can't be automated. People want to know that a real person is on the other end, ready to help them. They want the sensation of a human touch."

That bodes well for the future of web conferencing, he notes, since it makes a live interaction with a skilled professional only a mouse click away.

Joe Mullich is a business and financial writer who lives near Los Angeles.

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