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Telehealth could improve patient access to care. Lower costs?

Telemedicine — practicing medicine through the electronic exchange of medical information — promises to improve patient access to the best care. It also could head off costly hospital admissions for patients who have chronic illnesses by getting them medical help sooner. But cut down on day-to-day healthcare costs? Well, maybe a little, according to representatives […]

Telemedicine — practicing medicine through the electronic exchange of medical information — promises to improve patient access to the best care. It also could head off costly hospital admissions for patients who have chronic illnesses by getting them medical help sooner.

But cut down on day-to-day healthcare costs? Well, maybe a little, according to representatives of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) and its wellness unit, OptumHealth, who visited Cleveland on Monday and Tuesday with an 18-wheeler filled with audio and video equipment used to connect patients with doctors who are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

UnitedHealth’s Connected Care Mobile Clinic — an 80-foot tractor-trailer outfitted with computer monitors, cameras, digital medical devices and a satellite dish — was built to show medical professionals, employers and other potential users how “telehealth” works.

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Telehealth takes telemedicine several steps beyond a phone call. It involves clinical and nonclinical service providers who use video conferencing and other network technologies to provide primary and specialty healthcare. The national telehealth market is expected to grow to $6 billion by 2012, according to research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

For health insurer UnitedHealthcare, it also involves proprietary software, networks of medical providers and insurance reimbursement help, said Annaliesse Nassiri, the insurer’s director of telehealth operations.

The Connected Care-mobile — which already toured in Cincinnati and Dayton, and heads to Columbus today — shows off what parent UnitedHealth Group of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and collaborator Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO) called the nation’s first telehealth network last July when they announced its launch. Other companies have since signed on to provide services, such as video conferencing, Nassiri said. The network is still a work-in-progress, said Debora Spano, regional director of corporate communications for UnitedHealthcare.

UnitedHealthcare is piloting Connected Care in Colorado and New Mexico, Spano said. One day, telehealth networks could spread a dwindling supply of primary care doctors over a larger area, as well as give patients in rural or poor areas access to the best medical care. Of course, information from telehealth sessions would be added to patients’ electronic health records.

Rob Falkenberg, chief executive of UnitedHealthcare’s Ohio unit, sees more free clinics using federal stimulus dollars to invest in telehealth technologies. Audio, video and digital medical device technologies such as those used in UnitedHealth’s mobile clinic might cost between $10,000 and $100,000, Nassiri said.

Employers might use the networks to connect several on-site clinics with one doctor, reducing their cost, Falkenberg. “It’s expensive to have physicians at every clinic,” he said.

Could telehealth reduce healthcare costs? Improved access to quality medical care could keep a heart failure patient out of the hospital, and that would reduce costs, Falkenberg said. But telehealth networks and technologies aren’t aimed primarily at cutting healthcare costs, he said.