IEEE Seeks Common Standards to Connect Doctors with Telemedicine

Technology association IEEE and health plan provider UnitedHealth are looking to connect doctors with telemedicine technology, particularly in rural areas.

The IEEE, (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is working to foster collaboration between doctors and telemedicine service engineers.

The organization is working with government officials on how to implement telemedicine technology and is seeking federal funding to get new products launched.

Telemedicine experts are working to bring collaboration among biomedical engineers, doctors and government agencies.

"It should be a shared goal-as far as collaboration, I'm not sure we're there today," Dr. Yadin David, IEEE senior member and founder of the Center for Telehealth and e-Health Law in Washington D.C., told eWEEK.

Telemedicine is a means for providing care to patients electronically, while telehealth includes telemedicine along with other health care resources such as diet programs or smoking cessation, David explained. Another example of telemedicine is when drug store chains such as CVS and Walgreens enable customers to get prescriptions filled by filing them online or via telephone, he said.

Telehealth is growing as a new way to practice telemedicine as companies such as American Well, Epic Systems, Kaiser Permanente and RelayHealth support technology to connect doctors, pharmacists and patients online.

A July 27 report by UnitedHealth indicates that patients in rural areas have difficulty connecting to doctors and experience more chronic conditions.

With the quality of care lower in rural areas for 7 out of every 10 health care markets, telemedicine may be able to bridge the gap where in-person care is sparse, according to UnitedHealth.

"The next few years will be times of considerable stress on rural health care, but also times of great opportunity, since across the country there are already impressive examples of high-quality care, tailored to the distinctive needs of the local community," Simon Stevens, UnitedHealth Group executive vice president and chairman of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization, said in a statement.

Broadband access could ease this strain, according to UnitedHealth.

"The challenge for all involved in rural America now is to build on that track record of innovation and self-reliance, so as to ensure that all Americans-wherever they live- can live their lives to the healthiest and fullest extent possible," Stevens said.

The global market for telemedicine is expected to grow from $9.8 billion in 2010 to $23 billion in 2015, according to BCC Research.

Improving reimbursement across payers could lead to greater use of telemedicine, according to the UnitedHealth report.

Meanwhile, in Third World countries, people are using smartphones to transmit data from drops of blood, David said. "There is definitely progress in using these types of tools with telecommunications and smartphones and the endpoint toward providing more diagnoses than before," David said.

The IEEE will hold a joint conference on telemedicine with the American Medical Association in October.

In a telemedicine platform with the right standards, doctors would be able to examine a person's skin condition on screen, hear a heartbeat and study body language, David suggested.

A successful telemedicine platform should be as easy as the touch, click and magnification features of the Apple iPhone, according to David. These technologies exist in clinics and hospitals but need to be available remotely as well, he explained.

"All of this computer-based processing is done for large clinics and hospitals," David said. "We need to bring them into the area of remote consultation as well."

David sees wireless Bluetooth and Zigby devices transmitting heart monitor readings and pills you can swallow taking images of the colon as an alternative to colonoscopies.

For telemedicine to succeed, platforms will need to be open source, according to David.

"Open source would be very critical," he explained. "The famous issue of having Microsoft open up to developers, I want to see the same thing in telemedicine."

A model to use would be the open source technology of BigBlueButton, an open source project that incorporates products such as Ubuntu (a Linux distribution), the Grails open source framework, the Red5 open source flash server and OpenOffice's open-source office suite.