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February 18, 2011

Virtual Conferencing and Online Consultation: Medical Care for a Connected Nation

By Jaclyn Allard, TMCnet Web Editor

On Jan. 25, U.S. President, Barack Obama, addressed the American people not as two separate parties, but as fellow human beings, sharing in the pain of the recent Tucson, Ariz., shootings. With two years of contentious debates and fierce bickering behind us, President Obama reminded us it is time to let go of our losses, pick ourselves up and move forward. It is our differences that make us a united American family, and sometimes our humanity is shaken such as with recent events, but we remain bound as one people, always looking ahead with dreams, plans and determination.

President Obama commented on the nation’s next steps saying, “What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.” Among the many collaborative plans for tomorrow, such as education, immigration, road and rail work, President Obama addressed the need to expand high-speed wireless services to meet the voracious appetite of consumers and businesses that would help give momentum to the initial positive changes we have been seeing in the economy recently.

Therefore, it only makes sense to push for the growth of high-speed wireless coverage. President Obama expressed his belief that within five years we can make it possible for businesses to deploy the next-generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. The main goal here is to connect every part of America to the digital age. President Obama urged us to remember that “It's about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where famers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It's about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”

American Well, a developer of telehealth technology, shares the same vision for a connected nation. American Well’s Online Care Suite is the first solution to connect patients and doctors in real-time via the Web or phone in order to conduct a live, immediate online consultation or rather a virtual house call. American Well’s Online Care Suite is not to be confused with Skype (News - Alert), which connects any two or more people in a Web conference call. American Well isn’t just connecting anybody, it is connecting real patients with health inquiries to real doctors via virtual conferencing technology who can provide meaningful care, while enriching consultations with data from outside systems such as medical history and clinical analytics.

Right now, American Well’s solution is live in Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Texas; there are plans to roll out online care to every state in the U.S. American Well has agreements with national health companies, providing the service through insurance companies, hospital groups, and pharmacy chains. Consumers then log on to their insurance sites like Blue Cross in their home states and get access to Online Care (do not go to the American Well website to get service). Doctors can only treat patients who live in their state so the service is designed for individual states and groups. As CEO of American Well, Roy Schoenberg, MD, MPH, explained, “When you as a patient are at home and log on to that system you have the ability to say I have this kind of issue, the system will pretty much take your hand, get a better understanding of what you are presenting, give you a list of available, credentialed providers or credentialed physicians from your health plan network, not just any Joe Shmoe on the Internet.”

To ensure the private patient data content transferred verbally, visually, and via electronic health records is secure, American Well has partnered with IBM to further embed security in the Online Care system, safeguarding patient information collected during the virtual conferencing consultations. IBM (News - Alert) will help American Well further integrate its professional security services and skills into their application development process, creating more secure applications from the beginning.

Along with assisting in the application development process at the start, IBM also performs in-depth application vulnerability assessments for several of their customer, patient, and provider Web applications to identify potential security issues. These assessments verify tasks including transmission security, authentication, session management, passwords and provide a high-level architecture review.

Schoenberg added, “There are a couple requirements or commitments that this system needs to live by, in flying color, or more so in exceeding expectations, before we even have the right to turn the system on. And probably the most fundamental requirement is ensuring that the clinical information and entire medical interaction on the system is going to be owned by the patient.”

One thing is for sure, using this growing type of telehealth or online care, patients no longer have to travel great distances or wait days or weeks to get proper medical attention.

Jaclyn Allard is a TMCnet Web Editor. She most recently worked on the production team at Juran Institute, a quality consulting firm producing its own training and marketing materials. Previously, she interned at Curbstone Press, a nonprofit publishing press in Willimantic, CT, and fulfilled the role of Editor-in-Chief for the literature and arts journal published by the University of Connecticut. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard

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