Apr. 24, 2009 European healthcare is threatened by soaring costs and limited resources. Market tests demonstrating that telemedical services can cut costs and improve treatment are now being implemented across the continent.
If you are injured in a car crash or suspect you are having a stroke, quick diagnosis and treatment by top specialists could be critical to the outcome. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get that state-of-the-art care wherever you are, without having to be rushed to a clinic able to handle the case?
This is what the physicians and healthcare administrators of HEALTH OPTIMUM, an EU- funded initial deployment project, thought when they accepted the challenge of using IT to enhance healthcare across Europe, while helping to contain out-of-control costs.
“We set out to prove the sustainability of telemedical services from an organisational and economic point of view,” says HEALTH OPTIMUM project coordinator Claudio Dario. “In our two years of market validation, we found that telemedicine not only gave advantages from an economic point of view, but was very useful for the needs of patients.”
Treat the disease, not the symptom
Like good doctors anywhere, the HEALTH OPTIMUM team realised that just treating the symptoms of Europe’s healthcare malaise would not save the patient.
All EU member states are facing changes that are largely beyond their control – an explosion of medical knowledge accompanied by expensive new diagnostic equipment and procedures, an ageing population and declining work force, and increasing expectations for high-quality healthcare.
Dario and his colleagues across Europe realised that these structural problems demanded structural solutions – solutions that telemedicine might be able to help bring about.
“The concept of telemedicine is that you can bring the high-level specialisation of a few centres to patients all over the region,” says Dario.
The team first tested the concept, focusing on a variety of medical specialties, in Denmark, Spain and Italy. In Dario’s region of Veneto, which includes Venice and is home to 4.6 million people, the focus was on head trauma.
Before the project began, Dario says, most patients with head trauma and possible brain injury were transported by ambulance or helicopter to one of the region’s six neurosurgical centres. The centres were overloaded, treatment was often delayed, needless costs were incurred, and, once diagnosed, it turned out that most of the patients had not needed the centre’s specialised services.
With the co-operation of the region’s physicians and healthcare administrators, HEALTH OPTIMUM restructured the entire process.
First, an IT infrastructure was put in place to support remote but full-service neurosurgical consultation using a hub-and-spoke model.
Reorganisation of medical record keeping proved to be a crucial step. An adequate and inclusive system had to be designed to move records, such as computed axial tomography (CAT) images and lab results, smoothly and securely between a specialised centre and the peripheral clinics.
With the infrastructure in place, patients no longer need to be ferried from the accident site to a surgical centre, but can simply be brought to the nearest of 60 emergency rooms in the region, says Dario.
There, the patient is stabilised and given a CAT (or CT) scan which is immediately sent in digital form to a specialist. The specialist reads the scan and consults with the local healthcare provider as needed to determine if surgery is needed. Only in that case is the patient transferred to the neurosurgical centre.
“Our analysis showed that up to 80% of transportations have been avoided by this system, achieving a high level of savings,” says Dario. “In addition, by speeding up expert assessment, telemedicine saves lives.”
Similar trials in Spain and Denmark demonstrated that telemedicine is not only useful in managing trauma, but provides similar benefits in the management of chronic illnesses, such as endocrine disorders, diabetes, and heart disease.
“We have shown that telemedicine is useful and sustainable and that it provides both an economic and a medical value,” says Dario. “If it did not have value, we would not have been able to convince people to use it!”
More services, more countries
Since HEALTH OPTIMUM is funded under the EU’s eTEN programme for market validation and initial deployment, moving from demonstration to dissemination is part of its mandate.
Accordingly, HEALTH OPTIMUM is now increasing the range of its telemedical services in Italy, Spain and Denmark, and is expanding the project to Romania and Sweden.
Some of the services being rolled out include patient-physician videoconferences, with both having access to the patient’s complete record, dermatological, radiological and surgical consultations supported by high-resolution images, and tele-counseling for discharge planning, homecare, and alcohol rehabilitation.
With standardised records and protocols in place, Dario points out, they have even been able to provide medical consults from Italy to patients in Romania.
Dario is pleased to have shown that telemedicine can be accepted by doctors, patients and administrators, and that it can help Europe contain rising medical costs. Still, he says, there’s more to be considered.
“We now know that we can achieve a high level of savings,” says Dario. “But we have to consider that medicine is not just an industry. In many cases, the timing and specificity of diagnosis and treatment are vital. Telemedicine can save your life.”
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