Telehealth virtual consultations are expected to grow by more than 10 million over the next five years, according to research firm IHS, which projects these consultations to go from 16.6 million this year to 26.9 million by 2020.

According to Nancy Green, global practice lead for healthcare strategy and thought leadership at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, several factors are driving this growth. One is the growing sense of consumerism in patients. They want to get their care in the most convenient ways for them. They want healthcare convenience like that provided in the retail world. Green admits that this is particularly true with younger consumers who have always known convenience and the use of technology for anything they want to purchase.

Aside from convenience, and its use in reaching rural patients, governments have been using telehealth to bring about significant impact on improving population health, while lowering healthcare costs, Green said, who shared two such examples with MeriTalk.

San Diego County was facing a shortage in public health staff to ensure medication compliance in patients with tuberculosis. Telehealth visits were originally used to help the available staff watch patients take their medication, without having to visit the patients in person, Green said. But there were some surprise benefits. The virtual visits not only improved medication adherence and increased patient satisfaction, but San Diego County was able to reduce health department costs by 75 percent, according to Green.

In Houston, city health officials teamed up with Verizon to use telemedicine to reduce the number of emergency department hospital visits by creating a virtual connection between the emergency medical technicians and the hospital emergency physicians, Green said.

By allowing the EMTs to consult with the emergency physicians while still at the pick-up point, care could be coordinated. The city discovered that somewhere from nine to 12 percent of emergency calls were from patients requiring mental health services. Prior to the telehealth consultations, patients were always transported to the nearest hospital, which in many cases did not provide the mental healthcare the patient needed, Green explained. The use of telehealth consultations ensured that the majority of patients were properly routed to the most specific care needed.

Green advises governments that are thinking about using telehealth to consider workflow issues in advance. “A plan might sound good on paper until you map out who is going to answer the phones, look at the data and implement the project,” she said.

Government CIOs need to ask themselves, “who is going to do this project and make it work?” Green said. “Sometimes the best bet will be to look at the biggest problem you want to solve – the one that will result in the biggest impact – and focus on that,” she said.

In addition, governments will need telehealth champions throughout their entire organization to ensure success, Green said.

Diana Manos is a MeriTalk contributing writer.

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Diana Manos