Analytics and outreach key to telehealth success at Southwestern Health Resources

Senior man and his doctor having video conference with experienced medical worker

One of the advantages of telehealth is that patients can be far away and get their health and wellness care just the way they want it, whether on a website, in person, over the phone, or even over the Internet.

This has created a host of problems for providers, who, in most cases, have little choice but to embrace it.

I saw that in action recently at a presentation by a team of Southwestern Health experts at Dallas’ largest business meeting.

They had just wrapped up a five-week experiment with a low-cost and low-tech system that allows a nurse practitioner to evaluate and treat patients — using the telephone, for example — about as efficiently as a doctor visiting them.

Of the 50 or so people they evaluated, 46 used the telehealth system. To better know whether to expand the technology and others like it, they sent a questionnaire to more than 3,000 adult and child patients at their Dallas headquarters.

A lot of what they found — like the fact that not all patients are interested in participating and signing up — made you wonder if it’s worth the money. Others strongly encouraged them to expand telehealth, although how much the technology will actually save is hard to determine until such programs have been running a year or two.

That’s where the work of Charlotte Berry, the author of “Telemedicine in Emerging Markets: How the Digital Revolution Can Transform Health Care,” comes in.

Berry studies telehealth, primarily in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Venezuela, Turkey, the Philippines, Uganda, and Vietnam. So she knows the value of such projects.

It’s no secret that patients in poorer parts of the world are more reluctant to be physically present than in Western countries. Getting them to agree to telehealth makes it more likely that they will participate.

Most intriguing is how well such programs work in a part of the world where wireless networks are pitifully scarce and many people don’t have access to a television.

In one small example, in a rural district near the border with India, 65 people had to be recruited through outreach workers. The alternative was to send one doctor to each site over the Internet. This approach works much better, although the clinics have been around for only two years.

All of this adds up to a case study that could be a model for some states, which would be foolish not to give it some serious consideration.

For now, Berry is far too low-key to put any point on it. “These are pilot programs,” she said, “and although we have some good indicators they work, we need to do more research before we know how effective this technology is.”

But it seems clear that what works in India could work anywhere.

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