Connected healthcare is our future, if Washington acts

As Washington continues to debate ObamaCare, technological innovations have advanced to new levels, presenting a bipartisan opportunity to give Americans access to new ways to connect with their doctors.

Whether it involves patient portals, mobile apps, electronic health records or remote patient monitoring, technology has the power to bring high-quality care to more people with increased transparency and patient engagement. Telehealth, or as we like to call it, connected care, is harnessing technology through greater broadband deployment and adoption of new modalities to address gaps in the current system.

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Patients who need primary care, chronic disease management, mental health consultations or even specialty care such as dermatology, can communicate with their physicians remotely through a laptop, iPad, smartphone or kiosk. Patient care is available after-hours and on weekends, often in a patient’s home or in another convenient location. This is not merely a big step for patient convenience; it also represents an opportunity to improve the quality of care and promote care coordination.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been a pioneer in connected care. In fiscal 2012, nearly half a million veterans received 1.429 million remote care contacts. In the Defense Department spending bill recently signed by President Obama, one of the few amendments added to the bill extended healthcare services to transitioning veterans through telemedicine.

It is time to make connected care a bipartisan priority in Washington. Imagine an elderly woman with diabetes who can consult a doctor about managing her disease without having to leave her home, or a working parent who can video chat with his child’s pediatrician, or a patient in need of mental health services but too afraid to go to an office able to access care through a laptop, or a doctor who can monitor a patient already discharged from the hospital.

To achieve the true promise of connected care, we must ensure that our legal and regulatory structures allow Americans access to these innovations. We currently have rules that never anticipated what is possible today. We have an opportunity to embrace new platforms for the delivery of healthcare and prevention of chronic disease and to do so in a way that protects patients’ sensitive information.

Given the benefits of this technology, policymakers across government should be, and we believe are, asking themselves what they can do to expand its use while ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place.

For example, we have created a major emphasis on keeping people out of the hospital with prevention, chronic disease management, care coordination and readmission penalties. But, we still don’t reimburse home health agencies for remote patient monitoring, nor do we pay for patients to check in with care providers from their homes via real-time video.

We must create a consistent definition of connected care that will promote participation and broaden acceptance of remote care among providers, payers and patients. We must also address the lack of broad and consistent reimbursement, insufficient broadband infrastructure, inconsistent state medical licensing and varying degrees of clinical permissibility.

The time is right to address these issues, and the following facts are indisputable:
 
• Technology is more widely recognized as a job creator and an engine for economic growth.
• The evidence base for connected care has grown. Studies are published regularly that demonstrate improvements in quality, access and cost – including one recently that highlighted how Partners Healthcare System in Boston reduced readmissions of 1,200 heart failure patients by 50 percent through a home health telemonitoring program.
• Connected care aligns with broader efforts to strengthen the nation’s healthcare system. Notably, an emphasis on accountable care is putting pressure on providers to be in better contact outside of the office or hospital setting, and connected care offers a low-cost way for providers to follow up with their patients.
•  States and commercial insurers are increasingly reimbursing for connected care. In 2013 alone, legislation was introduced in 25 states to advance some type of telehealth policy, and 20 states now require commercial insurers to cover telehealth services.
•  As the expansion of coverage continues, more people will be enrolled in private health insurance plans or Medicaid than ever before but might not be able to access a physician. Connected care can help consumers find a doctor that suits their health needs.

Technology can be a powerful tool in meeting our healthcare challenges. To maximize its potential, we must pave the way by ensuring our laws and regulations keep pace with innovations in connected care.

Daschle, Lott and Breaux are co-chairmen of the Connected Care Alliance, a diverse coalition of companies dedicated to patient access to care through advanced technology.