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An Emerging Trend in Diabetes Education from AADE 2014 – Virtual Care and Telehealth Robots?

By Alexander Wolf, Melissa An, and Varun Iyengar

Twitter summary: At this year’s #AADE14, we heard more about a new trend in #diabetes education – telehealth and virtual care.

Short summary: At this year’s 2014 AADE Conference in Orlando, we heard about several emerging trends in diabetes education and delivery services. There was a noticeable interest in telehealth – a trend that stands to make diabetes care more convenient and accessible to everyone.

At this year’s American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) Conference, diabetes educators gathered in Orlando to learn about the latest in diabetes drugs, technologies, educational methods, and more. One of the most interesting topics of the conference from our view this year was the evolving role of diabetes educators in a new health care environment where many health centers are changing the way they approach diabetes. One emerging trend garnered a lot of attention throughout the conference:

Telehealth – Health Care Moves into Virtual Reality

In a packed room at a talk on telehealth, dozens of audience members planned to implement telehealth services at their diabetes education centers. Indeed, a recent study from Deloitte estimated that there will be 75 million electronic visits to general practitioners in Canada and the US this year, out of 600 million appointments. The telehealth industry is also expected to expand 10-fold by 2018, generating up to $4.5 billion compared to the $440 million in telehealth revenue in 2013. There is no question that telehealth is a growing piece of health care delivery, and its corresponding convenience and efficiency are exciting from a patient perspective.

Telehealth is a service in which patients and providers can exchange health information through electronic communication (entire clinician visits, nutrition consultations, etc.). It allows people to have full-length health care visits over video-chat on a big TV/computer screen, where the patient is typically at his or her local (often rural) health center and the health care provider is based at a more distant (often urban) center. Some centers even have “telehealth robots” equipped with video screens that can roam the hospital hallways and bring a health care provider right to the bedside. Other programs, such as HealthTap Prime or Doctor on Demand, allow users to contact (via video-chat, audio call, and/or text) a health care provider right from their phones, computers, and/or tablets – no matter the location. These types of programs can be expensive, though, at $99/month for HealthTap Prime and $40/appointment for Doctor on Demand.

The biggest benefits of telehealth are lower costs and time, particularly for those who cannot access care nearby. Telehealth can eliminate the need to drive long distances, navigate busy centers, or take large amounts of time off of work for an appointment. It also gives people access to more medical professionals and specialists, as not every town may have an endocrinologist, psychiatrist, etc. According to the National Rural Health Association, only 10% of health care providers practice in rural areas, though nearly 20% of the US population lives in rural areas - that trend is especially concerning given the shortage of diabetes care providers all over the country. Medicaid currently provides reimbursement for telehealth in 45 states (the exceptions are Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island), and it is partially covered for all people on Medicare.

While this mode of care may sound intimidating or impersonal, it’s akin to the level of personal interaction that someone would have over video chat software (e.g., Skype, Facetime, Google Plus) that are widely used for social and professional communication. For those who would otherwise have to travel hours to see an endocrinologist, this trade-off may well be worth it. Some centers have already seen great results; one center reported at AADE that 9 out of 10 of their patients who have done telehealth would recommend it to family or friends. For information about nearby telehealth services, check out the Telehealth Resource Center for a list of regional telehealth programs. 

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