Project ECHO, a knowledge-sharing enterprise that works both across the U.S. and globally, offers a good example of how technology-enabled collaborative learning models work. Launched initially in New Mexico to help patients with hepatitis C gain access to specialty treatment, Project ECHO connects a team of specialists at a university medical center "hub" with teams of primary-care clinicians at community health centers—or "spokes"—across a state or region. This connection is recurring: Typically, it takes place every week or every other week, during telementoring clinics that operate like virtual grand rounds.
"The awareness piece is a big problem," admits Ian Tong, a physician and the chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, an app that offers smartphone consultations for $75. Tong believes that part of the problem is the branding of the term "telemedicine," which isn't particularly descriptive, so he's opting to use the term "video visits" instead when he talks to patients about it.

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There certainly has been a lot of excitement around how novel digital technology can change the patient-provider relationship. A recent survey found that 64% of patients are willing to have video visits with their physicians, and the telehealth industry is expected to expand 10-fold by 2018. Apps like Doctor on Demand could play a major role in bringing telehealth mainstream; notably, Richard Branson (the man behind the Virgin Group empire), has recently invested in Doctors On Demand. The biggest benefits of virtual health apps are in lowering costs and saving time, particularly for those who cannot access care nearby. In a disease like diabetes, where blood glucose data can be analyzed remotely, there certainly is a lot of potential for technology to improve care. For more information on the role of virtual health in diabetes, check out our conference pearls from AADE 2014. –AJW/KC/AB
Healthcare systems that are thinking about implementing telemedicine solutions should consult with experts in the industry. VSee, a leading telemedicine organization, suggests that practices do not rush into telemedicine without having the right equipment. They offer a variety of practical solutions for practices wanting to add telemedicine to their clinic and can make the integration more seamless.
In 2016, researchers posing as patients turned to 16 different telemedicine apps to diagnose skin issues. The results? Some of the online doctors misdiagnosed conditions like syphilis, others prescribed unnecessary meds, and two of the sites used doctors who aren't licensed to practice in the state the patient was located. The authors concluded that these apps repeatedly missed diagnoses by failing to ask simple, relevant questions.
These emerging models produce virtual communities of learning and practice that embrace all members of the healthcare team. They are the latest point on the telemedicine continuum that began with the point-to-point connection achieved by Einthoven's pioneering electrocardiogram. Building out the connection established under telemedicine into an ever-expanding knowledge-sharing network can create new potential to improve health and save lives.
In the future, experts say, internet-­connected sensors—such as blood pressure monitors—could be paired with e-visits to help people manage chronic conditions from home. So far, such devices aren't widely used. But the list of conditions that patients and doctors can manage remotely is “ever expanding,” says Eric Topol, M.D., director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute.
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