Winter 2013

Wired for Health

Telemedicine holds promise, especially in underserved regions

By Bruce Morgan

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Illustration: Harry Campbell

Diabetic employees of a wood-products company in Guilford, Maine, had the chance last fall to sit down for one-to-one consultations with an eminent diabetes specialist from Tufts Medical Center. But no one had to take time off from work to make the eight-hour trip from central Maine to a doctor’s office in Boston and back in order to see the medical expert. It was all done online, using video conferencing technology in what’s being called the first time a Maine business has brought telemedicine into the workplace. The story appeared in the Bangor Daily News in early November.

Hardwood Products & Puritan Medical Products Co. employs about 420 people, manufacturing products such as Popsicle sticks and wooden skewers (on the Hardwood side of the business) and medical swabs and tongue depressors (on the Puritan side). The company is self-insured and has used Patient Advocates, a consulting firm in Gray, Maine, to manage the company’s health plan and help employees navigate the health-care industry.

At the telemedicine consultation in early October, seven employees were able to sit in a private room at Hardwood & Puritan and, guided by a Patient Advocates nurse, and consult virtually with Richard Siegel, co-director of Tufts Medical Center’s Diabetes Center, about their respective medical conditions. Following the sessions, Siegel, an associate professor at Tufts Medical School, arranged to send his notes and recommendations to each employee’s local primary-care physician. The link had special value given that access to medical specialists is rare in rural areas.

The trend of using telemedicine in the workplace is steadily gaining steam. “It’s very much a hot topic among large employers,” says one software consultant quoted in the story. The airline industry has used telemedicine to connect pilots and flight attendants with physicians because of their irregular schedules, and large financial services firms have deployed the technology to save employees a trip to the doctor and an afternoon lost at work.

In 2013, some 17 percent of midsize and large U.S. companies plan to offer telemedicine, and another 27 percent are considering it for 2014 and 2015, according to experts in the field.

Some critics harbor doubts on the real value of the approach. “Just connecting patients to specialty resources doesn’t necessarily promote the continuity of care or health-care delivery that we want to see in rural areas,” says Andrew Coburn, associate director of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. “The question is: Can technology be used to create more of a system than an occasional contact with a specialist?”

Siegel and others are hopeful that the emerging telemedicine program eventually will include more local resources such as nutritionists and pharmacists—and grow from there.

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