Telemedicine and telehealth applications are quickly becoming an important part of healthcare delivery. Whether it’s because of convenience, cost, efficiency or simply a better approach to medicine, both doctors and patients are more open to conducting medical appointments virtually. This is all made possible by unified communications and the way it links people and data via the cloud.

Think about neurologists, who are increasingly hard to come by. Fewer MDs are taking up the specialty, and those who have are retiring. Many healthcare systems struggle to cover the need for neurologists in their hospitals and emergency units. 

In New Jersey, one suburban system has solved this problem through the use of telemedicine. 

Within five minutes of arrival, all stroke victims are seen by an on-call neurologist using video conferencing. The doctor accesses the cloud-based technology using a mobile device or desktop computer. “Telestroke” – a video screen on wheels – enables the physician to examine the patient and do a full assessment, with a nurse standing nearby. The doctor can review radiology results and consult with other professionals as well, all via unified communications. Patients like it and clinical outcomes have improved. 

The growth of telemedicine

If telemedicine hasn’t come to your local hospital or medical practice, it’s on the way. The American Hospital Association reports that 65 percent of U.S. hospitals are using video and other new technology to connect patients and healthcare professionals. What’s behind the growth?

Convenience. With the ubiquitous use of smartphones and video communications, patients view telemedicine as a convenient way to receive healthcare. Why go to the office just for a bad cold (and possibly pick up another infection in the waiting room)? Access to the internet, and to a healthcare professional via the cloud, is more convenient and efficient.

Access. With telemedicine, patients in rural and other underserved areas can access better medical care. Patients who have mobility issues or difficulty getting transportation also benefit.

Efficient use of human capital. With many physicians retiring, medical resources are stretched thin. Telehealth enables the healthcare industry to use its resources more efficiently. For instance, if a primary care provider (PCP) and specialist collaborate using electronic, cloud-based medical information systems, a separate office visit to the specialist may not be necessary. The doctors can review the patient’s information when it’s convenient, then collaborate via video or email to discuss clinical decisions.

How unified communications brings it all together

None of this would be possible without the internet and cloud-based communications. Today using any device (smartphone, desktop, laptop or tablet), patients and healthcare professionals can create better clinical outcomes via unified communications.

Collaboration. Whether it’s in real-time or asynchronously, practitioners can communicate more effectively with each other using collaboration tools that make it simple to share files and medical information. A family physician sets up a video call with a specialist with one click. The consulting physician texts the PCP with a quick answer. All this happens no matter where each is physically located—at the office, the hospital or their kid’s soccer game. 

Store-and-forward. At the heart of these communications is the ability to send and share medical information securely. Data-rich files like MRIs, X-rays, photos, video and other patient data is stored in the cloud, where practitioners can access the information at their convenience. This technology – called “store-and-forward” – is used most commonly today in radiology, dermatology, ophthalmology and pathology. 

For example, if a PCP wants her diabetic patient screened for diabetic retinopathy, she can take a digital image using retinal cameras, then forward it to an ophthalmologist for review. 

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Services conducted a diabetic retinopathy screening program using store-and-forward technology. In one year, it was able to eliminate over 14,000 specialty care visits while improving screening rates by more than 16 percent. It also reduced wait times for screening by 89 percent.

Choosing the right unified communications provider

To make this all work and reap the benefits of telemedicine, you’ll need a reliable and flexible cloud solutions provider. Here are a few things to consider when choosing your telehealth platform:

HIPAA Compliant. Any cloud communications solution for healthcare must comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Look for a provider who is certified HIPAA-compliant. Also, ask if the provider can customize its platform to meet any additional security requirements you might need.

A full suite of communications tools. The complete UC solution should include voice, video conferencing, instant messaging, presence technology, email and secure transmission of data, all accessible by diverse devices (e.g., mobile, tablet, desktop) via an internet connection. 

Room to grow. Make sure you’ll be able to grow your infrastructure over time and cover geographically dispersed sites. In addition, look for a UC provider who can customize your platform with specific applications to meet your needs. 

With the help of unified communications, the healthcare industry is poised to make great strides in providing better, more efficient care. Choose a UC solutions partner who will help you reap the benefits of this technology.

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