Telehealth and the Future of Healthcare

By Riley Draper

America’s healthcare system is undergoing some of the most significant changes since Medicare and Medicaid and I’m not just talking about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. With the advent of video conferencing technology and the persistence of treatment barriers, such as access and stigma, a new form of healthcare has emerged known as telehealth: the process of providing consultative health services to clients remotely through secure, high quality video conferencing systems. These systems, like the one developed by Wecounsel, allow mental health providers to extend their services beyond the traditional in-person setting and simultaneously provides a first time treatment opportunity for clients who would have otherwise been less likely, or unable to meet with a provider in person. In fact, recent research conducted by Cisco for their Global Customer Experience Report reveals that 76% of Americans prefer telehealth communications to traditional human contact.

In 2011, before all the buzz surrounding telehealth began to surface, I started a telehealth company alongside two high school friends of mine, Harrison Tyner and Joshua Goldberg, called Wecounsel Solutions. We founded Wecounsel out of our shared frustration with our current behavioral health care options and a health care system that had ultimately failed not only our friends and family members but our community as a whole. I remember telling the story of my parent’s divorce and how my brothers and I had all gone through counseling at one point in time, counseling which inevitably ended before we ever got the help we had originally hoped for. Shortly after starting the company we discovered early in our research that our personal experiences were not solitary incidents, that in fact millions of Americans that seek mental health services each year don’t make it to their third appointment.

While telemedicine has existed in some form since the telephone arrived on the scene (providers would talk to clients who were remote over the phone) it’s not until recently with the onset of video conferencing that it has become widespread. After all, in a society where only 7% of communication is verbal there’s something discerning about quality of a conversation transmitted via audio only. Fortunately, videoconferencing technology has come a long way and for the first time we can not only depend on it, but trust that it will hold up even when delivering something as sensitive as protected health information. We can recapture the 93% of communication that’s made up by facial expressions, gestures, and other body movements. When integrating our video conferencing interface, our team took another step forward and asked ourselves, “What else would providers and their clients need to supplement their telehealth sessions?” After weeks of brainstorming and months of development we successfully integrated customizable profiles, document storage, synchronized scheduling, and billing solutions into our platform. This way, providers are able run their practices more efficiently and effectively online, without the hassle of filling cabinets, checks, or mail – dare I mention, traffic jams and waiting rooms. And since most providers are not self-declared tech enthusiasts, our team designed Wecounsel for ease of use, meaningful collaboration, and secure interactions.

The benefits of telehealth are overwhelming. As Roy Schoenberg put it, “Telehealth changes the fundamental paradigm that existed for hundreds of years: If you are a patient and you’re sick, you need to go to where healthcare is to get care. With the introduction of telehealth, we have the ability to reverse that paradigm, and say, “No, if you’re sick, healthcare can come to you where you live, where you work, when you need it, where you need it, under your own terms.” This means increased access, potential savings, and reduced “no shows” that can ultimately lead to better outcomes. In our effort to increase access, Wecounsel offers telehealth services to individuals in private practice as well as larger health care enterprises such as outpatient clinics and hospitals.

While technology is growing rapidly, reimbursement for telehealth is finally catching up. Today, Medicare has set the standard by reimbursing for telehealth in nearly every state while more than twenty states have mandated reimbursement for private insurers though many of the long standing traditional barriers to behavioral health services continue to persist. As cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives.” The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars every year in the United States.

Last week I watched 60 Minutes as Virginia senator Creigh Deeds spoke for the first time about the morning his son, Gus, who struggled with bipolar disorder, attempted to kill him before taking his own life. Deeds recounts the story of how he and Gus visited a psychiatric hospital just hours prior to the incident where Gus was sent home due to a lack of available beds and a law that stipulates that an individual can only be held under emergency custody for six hours. Deeds claims that after fighting for hours to get Gus admitted to the hospital he had no other choice but to take his son back home, where the incident had originated. The next morning, Deeds found himself at the hospital in critical condition, the victim of multiple stab wounds. “The system failed my son,” Deeds told 60 Minutes, the scars on his face still fresh from the attack. I look at these instances of failure in the mental health industry and I can’t help but wonder if increased access to mental health providers could resolve some of these conflicts. Creigh, a senator from Virginia, and his son faced the same problems so many individuals and families face on their day to day search for access and resolution. With telehealth solutions readily available there is no reason why live health care can’t be as easily accessible as a bottle of medicine from the kitchen cabinet in the comfort of one’s own home.

*This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Health Care Global.