Health-Care Reform in Action

Something a speaker said at this morning's EmTech panel session is still wringing in my ears:

Something a speaker said at this morning’s EmTech panel session is still wringing in my ears: “For the last four months of his life, I Skyped with that patient every day,” said Ron Dixon, the director of The Virtual Practice at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The patient in question was dying of cancer, and it would have been physically challenging for him to come into the hospital daily. And what insurance company would cover that? Yet by adopting an inexpensive new technology, Dr Dixon was able to see and talk to his patient daily to discuss needed adjustments in treatment — all for the cost of a Webcam and a monthly Skype bill.

Not to ignore the very real security and privacy issues involved in bringing the US health-care system into the digital age, but the biggest problem seems to be cultural. Most (big generalization, I know) doctors, nurses and patients, too, are more comfortable with in-person interactions or phone calls than with email, SMS, and videochat. Yet such new technologies are an obvious way to cut costs and, most likely, improve care.

Dixon and his Virtual Practice team are working on some great projects, such as a health kiosk that could be installed, for instance, in the lobby of a retirement community. Every time a resident with a chronic heart condition went to get her mail, she could log into the kiosk and quickly have her blood pressure taken. The kiosk is being pilot-tested now in Singapore.

Given the current debate about how to reform health care — with the goal of expanding coverage, lowering costs and improving care — Dixon’s Virtual Practice work is timely. It’s worth noting that Massachusetts began mandating health insurance (an issue currently be debated in Congress) several years ago, and so the state has become a lab test of sorts for healthcare reform. One thing that became clear as citizens forced to get insurance flooded into hospitals and clinics is that there weren’t enough primary care physicians to treat them all given current practices. Does MA and the US as a whole need more primary care physicians? Probably. But we can start to address that problem and others if we’re willing to adopt new technologies.

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