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Telehealth Gives Doctors a Chance to Be Where They’re Most Needed

Miramont Family Medicine in Colorado uses two telehealth robots to coordinate care in the three-office medical practice. Dr. John Bender says the robot, managed by a smartphone app, enables him to be where he needs to be.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Telehealth technology is allowing Dr. John Bender to be in two places at once. And that makes a big different in care management and coordination for thousands of patients at his Colorado-based medical practice.

Bender, senior partner and Chief Executive Officer of Miramont Family Medicine, is using a pair of telemedicine robots to coordinate care at the three-office medical practice. He says the telepresence units are used every day in the practice, which employs about 80 practitioners and sees some 20,000 patients a year.

“I think it has had a profound effect on patient care,” he says.

Bender is among a growing number of providers using remote-controlled robots to deliver virtual care to remote locations, ranging from health clinics to cruise ships to prisons and schools to separate branches of a multi-site practice. The robots – the most popular of which are Vecna’s VGo, Suitable Technologies’ Beam and InTouch Health’s Vita – give doctors and nurses a mobile platform upon which to conduct a patient exam, chat with patients, family and care team members, give specialist consults and even give that longtime patient the opportunity to be seen by his or her favorite primary care physician.

“If I’m out of town and they want to see me now, they’ll get to see me now,” says Bender, who can use a smartphone, laptop or tablet to guide the robot during visits.

READ MORE: Telemedicine Robots: Out of Science Fiction and Into the Mainstream

Bender bought his first robot five or six years ago, and now has two Beams stationed in two offices. He ticks off a number of use cases for the mobile health devices: a psychologist conducting regular sessions with patients who can’t make it to the office, a registered dietician giving a class, a diabetes nurse giving a patient and his/her family the rundown on how to deal with a new insulin pump.

“For patient care, it’s almost what I would call reverse telehealth,” he says. Instead of the patient logging in for a healthcare visit on a computer, he notes, the care provider is making that connection from afar (he and his colleagues call it “beaming in.”)

For example, Bender recalls one day when he couldn’t make it into the office, but had 20 patients scheduled to see him that day. Using the Beam, he was able to see 13 of those patients rather than having them reschedule their appointments or looking for another provider to interrupt his or her workflow and see his patients.

On another occasion, he said, an evening shift physician was unable to see two patients who had come into the office, so Bender Beamed in from his home and saw those patients.

“The visits tend to take the same amount of time, and I can do a lot more (through a virtual visit) than some people might expect” he says. “I’d estimate 40 percent of what I see in the office, I can see by Beam.”

READ MORE: Telemedicine Backpack Gives Providers a New Mobile Health Tool

The challenge may come in finding the ROI for a piece of medical equipment that costs upwards of $15,000. Bender says the purchases he’s made are worth it, and measured in patient satisfaction and convenience and improvements to clinical workloads. The cost of rescheduling a visit because the doctor isn’t available, forcing a patient to travel to another clinic for a specialist consult or simple check-up, or simply meeting the needs of that patient who wants to see just one doctor are sometimes immeasurable, but always valuable.

And it’s not always about patient care. Bender recalls one time when he was scheduled to give a keynote address in front of the Mesa County Medical Society in Grand Junction, but at the last moment was asked to attend an event in Palm Springs. He flew to Palm Springs and had an associate bring the Beam to Grand Junction. Then he Beamed in from his hotel room to circulate among the attendees (he even visited the bar) and give his keynote.

Months later, some of the attendees told him how much they enjoyed his keynote, and he recalls feeling as if he’s been there in that conference room, rather than in his hotel room several states away.

“You become immersed in it,” he says. “You’ve personalized the technology to the point that it’s just like you were there in the room. This isn’t like a Skype meeting.”

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