You know a market is set for innovation and expansion when tech giants like Google and Microsoft doctors review patient updates on a tabletenter the fray. That’s exactly what’s happening in the rapidly emerging telehealth sector.

Google Helpouts, launched in November 2013, connect member patients to healthcare professionals over live video. Microsoft’s Kinect xBox peripheral, meanwhile, can be combined with its HealthVault solution to allow healthcare providers to remotely diagnose certain conditions.

Telehealth—the use of devices and communication technology for remote health monitoring—is on a tear. The global market is expected to expand tenfold in the next four years. In fact, 42 percent of hospitals are already using telehealth, especially in rural areas where patients lack easy access to healthcare facilities.

But for telehealth to deliver on its promise, it needs to be more than just gee-whiz technology. Telehealth has to be simple enough for use by the populations that need it most. And telehealth technologies must be seamlessly integrated to ensure the right data gets to the right healthcare providers at the right time.

There’s a telehealth app for that

A growing array of gadgets and services can extend healthcare from the hospital or doctor’s office right into a patient’s home.

As just a few examples:

  • The Alere HomeLink links patients to their doctor and electronic medical records through the cloud. It lets patients self-test at home and send results to their healthcare provider.
  • The Bosch Health Buddy is designed for coordinating long-term care for patients with chronic conditions. The solution connects a simple device with a desktop application at the doctor’s office.
  • The digiO2 Care Pal integrates blood-pressure monitor, glucose meter, thermometer, scale, pulse oximeter, ECG monitor, and more. It transmits health data to a Web-based data center where a doctor or loved one can monitor the results.

Such capabilities are even being integrated directly into so-called smart homes. Sensors embedded in clothing, furniture, and appliances increasingly will collect data that can uncover risk patterns or help diagnose diseases.

Market drivers

Telehealth will become an important part of healthcare, for three reasons. First, hospitals and physician groups will increasingly replace fee-for-service models with pay-for-performance approaches. Under fee for service, doctors are compensated for seeing patients at the office, not for monitoring patients at home. But pay for performance will emphasize health outcomes, and doctors will be incentivized to ensure ongoing wellness.

Second, insurers want to minimize the cost of carrying patients with chronic conditions. They’ll invest in home-health devices and care-coordination programs if they can help patients avoid costly hospital stays.

Finally, pharmaceuticals grappling with generics competition and few new blockbuster drugs want to ensure patients are adhering with medication programs. They can leverage automated reminders, refills, and related services to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and ensure long-term customers. They can use the same technology to improve monitoring of clinical trials and gain insights into the ongoing use of medications.

Integration for better outcomes

But telehealth will have to be more than just clever technology. For starters, solutions will have to be easy enough for all patient populations to take advantage of. Older or sicker patients may lack the inclination or the wherewithal to figure out complex devices or comply with complex testing routines. Currently, younger and healthier patients are the most common users.

What’s more, telehealth will require the infrastructure to ensure that health data captured in the home actually reaches the healthcare providers who need it, in as close to real time as possible. That means providers will have to invest in the resources to ensure that telehealth data is being monitored, analyzed, and acted on.

Most important, telehealth data will need to be standardized and integrated. A growing number of patients will have multiple in-home devices connected to multiple healthcare providers. Data will need to be integrated so that it’s providing a complete, accurate picture of the patient’s health. It will also have to be shared among providers so they can effectively coordinate care.

If telehealth technology is easy to use, consumer demand will drive its adoption. And if the data it captures is standardized and integrated, telehealth can lead to better outcomes for patient and industry alike.

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