Integrating telemedicine and telehealth: putting it all together

Arizona Telemedicine Program, Department of Pathology, University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson Campus, 1501 N. Campbell Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85724, USA.
Studies in health technology and informatics 02/2008; 131:23-38.
Source: PubMed


Telemedicine and telehealth programs are inherently complex compared with their traditional on-site health care delivery counterparts. Relatively few organizations have developed sustainable, multi-specialty telemedicine programs, although single service programs, such as teleradiology and telepsychiatry programs, are common. A number of factors are barriers to the development of sustainable telemedicine and telehealth programs. First, starting programs is often challenging since relatively few organizations have, in house, a critical mass of individuals with the skill sets required to organize and manage a telemedicine program. Therefore, it is necessary to "boot strap" many of the start-up activities using available personnel. Another challenge is to assemble a management team that has time to champion telemedicine and telehealth while dealing with the broad range of issues that often confront telemedicine programs. Telemedicine programs housed within a single health care delivery system have advantages over programs that serve as umbrella telehealth organizations for multiple health care systems. Planning a telemedicine program can involve developing a shared vision among the participants, including the parent organizations, management, customers and the public. Developing shared visions can be a time-consuming, iterative process. Part of planning includes having the partnering organizations and their management teams reach a consensus on the initial program goals, priorities, strategies, and implementation plans. Staffing requirements of telemedicine and telehealth programs may be met by sharing existent resources, hiring additional personnel, or outsourcing activities. Business models, such as the Application Service Provider (ASP) model used by the Arizona Telemedicine Program, are designed to provide staffing flexibility by offering a combination of in-house and out-sourced services, depending on the needs of the individual participating health care organizations. Telemedicine programs should perform ongoing assessments of activities, ranging from service usage to quality of service assessments, to ongoing analyses of financial performance. The financial assessments should include evaluations of costs and benefits, coding issues, reimbursement, account receivables, bad debt and network utilization. Long-range strategic planning for a telemedicine and telehealth program should be carried out on an on-going basis and should include the program's governing board. This planning process should include goal setting and the periodic updating of the program's vision and mission statements. There can be additional special issues for multi-organization telemedicine and telehealth programs. For example, authority management can require the use of innovative approaches tailored to the realities of the organizational structures of the participating members. Inter-institutional relations may introduce additional issues when competing health care organizations are utilizing shared resources. Branding issues are preferably addressed during the initial planning of a multi-organizational telemedicine and telehealth program. Ideally, public policy regarding telemedicine and telehealth within a service region will complement the objectives of telemedicine and telehealth programs within that service area.

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