With medical breakthroughs in the news seemingly every day, or at least every week, healthcare is continually transforming. How that care is delivered doesn’t transform nearly as fast. But an area I am deeply involved in — telehealth — is transforming how healthcare is delivered, and that makes it a great topic for today, since National Health IT Week 2015 in underway this week with the theme of “One Voice, One Vision: Transforming Health.”

More and more healthcare organizations are adopting and expanding their use of telehealth, which is defined as the use of voice, video and messaging to support long-distance clinical healthcare. There are a lot of ways to describe this service, from telehealth to e-visits to virtual health, but to keep it simple I will just call it “telehealth.”

Research has shown that telehealth can improve patient care, and healthcare organizations are rolling out more and bigger deployments all the time. Patients are very accepting of the practice. According to a 2013 Cisco healthcare research study that included 1,547 end user respondents and 403 healthcare decision-makers in 10 countries, 76% of patients found access to care more important than physical human contact with their care provider.

Telehealth is also a good business decision. For example, one healthcare organization deploying Cisco’s telehealth solution has psychiatrists and psychologists at a central location providing behavioral health consultations to several EDs in a hub-and-spoke arrangement, and that facility reduced its ED length of stay by 33% in the first three months of the deployment. The healthcare organization realized a 40% reduction in analyzed cost per patient.

One of the best features of telehealth is it helps patients in regions where it may be difficult to get to their doctors because of long travel distances, or because there aren’t many doctors providing particular services. It’s also a big help when patients are disabled and may have trouble getting around. As a result, healthcare organizations can better scale the services of those providers to improve care coordination, which becomes really important as the number of pay-for-performance healthcare models grows.

As it turns out, many patients are actually more satisfied with telehealth visits than in-person visits because it’s more convenient and they can see their doctors more frequently. For example, take the case of a patient undergoing surgery. At least some of the pre- and post-op appointments can be done remotely, saving time and building the key provider and patient relationship.

One trend we’ve noticed is that healthcare organizations that once contracted telehealth out to third-party providers are bringing it in-house. That’s because it allows them to provide better service, coordinate care and compete with immediate care facilities that have a flat-fee service model, such as Walgreens and CVS Caremark. This feature matters because as healthcare insurance plans continue to move toward higher deductibles, where patients are paying more out of pocket for each engagement, we are seeing a much more cost-conscious consumer.

One big problem with telehealth deployments, however, is when different parts of healthcare organizations use different technology providers. Compared to using a unified platform, this usually costs more from both a CapEx and an OpEx standpoint. Also, this siloed approach forces doctors to learn different systems in different parts of the organization, which results in those doctors being less likely to use the systems.

A better way is for every service line in a healthcare organization to use the same foundational technology architecture and then customize as needed. That includes collaboration on a core IT foundation that provides voice, video and messaging services.

An enterprise deployment like this includes a breadth of endpoints that are well suited for each service line and each location inside or outside the hospital. Maintaining that breadth of endpoints includes having features like mobile clients, web-integrated video, browser-integrated video and desktop clients so each part of the organization can leverage that foundation and then pick the endpoint that’s best for them. Those endpoints are then interoperable across the entire enterprise — resulting, for example, in users being able to communicate from a web-integrated video to a physical endpoint at a desktop or an examination room and have ease of use across that entire platform.

A breadth of endpoints also makes it easier to integrate workflow software such as billing integration, ER integration and scheduling integration across the enterprise.

As healthcare transforms, so does telehealth. That means a growing number of patients will be able to connect with their doctors in a more convenient, efficient way.

Want to see more NHIT Week posts? Stay tuned for other guest blogs all week! And connect with us @CDW_Healthcare on Twitter using hashtag #NHITWeek to share in the discussion.

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