Telehealth is one prescription for better access to care, according to health care leaders gathered Monday at a national summit in Washington, D.C.
Sanford Health Chief Medical Officer Allison Suttle, M.D., spoke about telehealth as a panelist at U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals’ Healthcare of Tomorrow summit.
The panel discussion, “Telehealth as a Population Health Tool,” shared how health systems use video platforms, medication monitoring systems and virtual assistants to reach more people. Specifically, telehealth can help multiple populations by:
- Reaching patients in rural communities, sometimes hours from the nearest specialist
- Keeping older adults living longer at home
- Helping to overcome mental health stigma with virtual group therapy
- Letting busy families check symptoms without a trip to a clinic
“As a rural health system, we have been doing telemedicine out of necessity ever since the telephone was invented,” Dr. Suttle said.
One telehealth tool: Virtual exams
Sanford Health serves nearly 2 million people in small cities, towns and rural areas in 26 states. Patients live across an area roughly the size of Texas.
To help serve that far-flung population, the health system recently expanded its telemedicine offering. Earlier this year, Sanford announced a partnership with Tyto Care, an all-in-one modular device and telehealth platform for on-demand, remote medical exams.
Tyto Care’s live, Sanford physician-guided exams will enhance doctors’ remote diagnosis and treatment abilities.
Still, Dr. Suttle acknowledged telehealth is just one way to improve access to health care.
“One thing I find limiting with telemedicine: It’s never going to solve the health issues of the most complex patients,” she said.
Socioeconomic barriers to health care
For example, Sanford researchers used electronic medical records data to define “disengaged” patients: people who use the ER often, skip regular checkups and don’t fill prescriptions. The study team found what these patients wanted was an insider in the health care system — someone they could trust, who understood their daily issues and could help them.
The solution was not technology at all. It was a person. Health guides now help patients fill out housing paperwork and ride the bus with them to their appointments.
For those reasons and more, Dr. Suttle asked tech companies to consider the humans on the other end of the smartphone.
“If telehealth companies want to bring their technology to us, they need to understand our populations beyond access and convenience and think about trusting relationships,” Dr. Suttle said. “Apps and gamification will only help as much as the patient wants to engage.”
About the telehealth panel
Each year, the Healthcare of Tomorrow summit brings together medical experts, hospital executives, policymakers, insurers, consumer advocates and industry analysts to tackle today’s most pressing issues. Sessions focus on challenges and solutions regarding health care reform, Big Data, patient safety, Medicare and more.
Michael Morella, assistant managing editor of U.S. News & World Report, moderated the “Telehealth as a Population Health Tool” panel discussion. Joining Dr. Suttle on stage as speakers were:
- Sanjeev Arora, M.D., director, Project ECHO; professor, Department of Internal Medicine, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center
- Martin E. Doerfler, M.D., senior vice president, Clinical Strategy & Development, associate chief medical officer, Northwell Health
- Kim Swafford, group vice president, Telehealth & Health Technology Strategy, Providence St. Joseph Health
- Opinion: Telehealth is calling — will Congress pick up?
- Using technology to improve rural health
- Allison Suttle: ‘Every moment matters’
- Population health: Get healthy now to prevent illness later