Last week I attended the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) annual conference in Austin.  For over 10 years I have been going to this conference – in person and remotely – to keep abreast of the latest developments in this unique segment of the healthcare IT industry.

More Than an Academic Experiment

As has been the trend for the last few years, the symposium portion of this year’s ATA continues to expand beyond academic proof cases to real-life discussions of implementing telemedicine programs and seeing quantifiable benefits.  No longer is the healthcare industry in a state of trying to prove the benefit of telehealth.  Now they are offering approaches to expand the scope and reach of healthcare services.  Instead of simple discussions of radiology transfer, the use cases focused on more expansive services, such as continuing care (e.g. diabetes management) and critical care (e.g. stroke victims). And one of our clients addressed the growth of the industry head on, moderating a panel on “The Challenges of Growth.”

The challenges raised within these sessions tended toward some of the common broad stroke issues facing the healthcare arena, including reimbursement and credentialing. Despite all the efforts to expand services to underserved populations, government regulations have remained behind technology capabilities.  Based on the tone of the symposium, the biggest obstacle to telemedicine becoming successful across the country is government regulation.  As in all markets, the business case (i.e. insurance reimbursement) is fundamental to driving investment and market maturation.

A Technology Show

Over the years, the ATA conference has had a split personality; the academic symposium that focuses on both esoteric issues of remote medicine and use case scenarios, and the exposition floor.  This year was no different.  Though, as with the more focused topics of the symposium, there appeared to be a convergence of the marketplace around the following types of technology:

  1. Video – Every vendor had video integrated into their solution. This has been a trending technology focus of ATA for years and now it has reached complete ubiquity.
  2. Tablets (typically iPad mini) – The introduction of tablets has changed vendors’ service offerings forever because they are low cost, portable and easy to program.  Instead of focusing on building hardware to suit their environmental needs, they write a program and find some way to ruggedize or secure the tablet.
  3. Wireless peripherals (BP cuff, oxygen saturation meter, etc.) – Peripherals have always been a mainstay at ATA.  They are critical components in helping healthcare providers remotely monitor and diagnose their patients. The difference today is that the combination of wireless protocols, such as Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC, with flash memory has allowed devices to shrink in size and cost. And with portability and lower cost comes a much improved chance of widespread adoption in low density areas that require telemedicine services.
  4. ROBOTS – Talk about the wow factor!  The hot gadgets of the show were robots with gyroscopic balancing (think segway) that can interact with patients remotely.  These devices are very cool, though their practical application and likelihood of adoption seems low.

Overall, ATA continues to be a good meeting place for likeminded individuals working to provide parity in health services available across the country.  The market has matured fantastically over the past decade, and I expect more maturation as issues like reimbursement and cross-border credentialing are addressed.

Looking forward to next year’s ATA in Baltimore!