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A dose of telemedicine saves lives, cuts costs

Partners Healthcare extends treatment to homebound patients, remote stroke victims.

By Joel Shore, Network World
February 20, 2006 12:04 AM ET

Network World - Following her diagnosis of congestive heart failure in 2004, 68-year-old Carolyn Thornton was given a choice: She could wait at her suburban Boston home for twice-weekly medical readings taken by a visiting nurse and recorded in a notebook, or do it herself. Her decision to take her own daily readings and transmit them to cardiac nurses in Boston may have saved her life. When a nurse noticed a precipitous drop in Thornton's blood pressure reading, she called the patient and urged her to seek medical attention.

Intel explores telemedicine

Home-based vital-sign monitoring is just one way the technology known as telemedicine can save lives and improve medical care. Led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the hospitals of Partners Healthcare are forging ahead with several telemedicine initiatives that bring healthcare closer to patients.

Hundreds of patients are enrolled at home in programs that monitor vital signs, and a project that monitors patients with hypertension in their homes is due to get underway shortly. Another project that allows homebound patients to have virtual visits to doctors' offices with specialists or consultations for second opinions serves nearly 2,000 patients per year. A fourth project allows acute-stroke patients brought by ambulance to outlying community hospitals to be quickly diagnosed by MGH's stroke specialists.

What is startling about these telemedicine initiatives is their use of modest network technology and rock-bottom cost - just $100 per month, per patient for the heart-monitoring project, including all home and data-center hardware, communications, application development and ongoing operations for hundreds of patients.

"Simple solutions too often are overlooked," says Doug McClure, corporate manager for technology services at Partners' telemedicine group in Boston. "There is no breakthrough of new technology here, but a leveraging of inexpensive, reliable technology that was proven long ago."

Telemedicine technology

Home-based monitoring begins with a small tabletop console. Plugged into it are various sensors, which may include a blood-pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter for measuring pulse and blood-oxygen saturation levels, and a scale for recording weight. The console's liquid crystal display prompts patients through data gathering, then the patient presses a button that initiates a dial-up session to upload the data through the patient's home telephone line.

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