Health Care Reform Paving the Way for New Technologies

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- "Obamacare" may not please everybody, but Americans of all political stripes already benefit from at least one by-product of the new law: innovative health care technologies that make it easier and cheaper to access quality health care.

A key driver for technology creation within Obamacare is the idea of "accountable care," where providers receive financial incentives for delivering high quality care at a lower cost. If the old economic model was to build a hospital and fill it with paying patients, the new model rewards medical professionals for keeping people healthy and out of the building as much as possible.

Accountable care requires that "hospitals defend the perimeter against avoidable admission," said George Pace, a health care industry executive based in North Carolina. "If I'm there because of a heart attack, okay, but it's not okay if it's because I forgot to take my medications. You have to expand the continuum of care into the community and identify and address symptoms, illnesses, and behaviors before they escalate."

That's where technology comes in. Just as doctors and hospitals leverage "physician extenders" such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants to provide a broad range of services, said Pace, "technology extenders" such as mobile telemedicine, real-time collaborative tools and electronic monitoring systems will increasingly be used to maximize the reach of medical professionals, all while lowering costs.

In some rural communities, for example, local doctors have started to utilize remote presence devices -- call them "robo-docs" -- to teleconference with distant specialists as they examine patients. In the past, patients might have been forced to travel hundreds of miles at great expense to meet with specialists, or perhaps would have skipped the trip, only to land in the emergency room shortly thereafter.

Mark Twain Medical Center, a small, 25-bed hospital in San Andreas, California, recently acquired the RP-VITA, an advanced telemedicine robot from InTouch Health and iRobot ( IRBT). Outside medical specialists can direct RP-VITA, which looks a bit like R2D2 from Star Wars, only taller and with better posture, to a patient's bedside to initiate a consultation or exam.

"We're just beginning to realize telemedicine's true potential in disease prevention," writes InTouch Health on its corporate blog. "It doesn't take a genius to understand that a 340-pound patient who doesn't exercise or make regular primary care visits is a prime candidate for a stroke or heart attack. Telehealth e-visits and follow-ups can go a long way toward eliminating the need for remote stroke consultations down the road."

Accountable care also encourages health professionals across multiple disciplines and locations to collaborate on clinical care to avoid superfluous medical expenditures. Cooperation becomes even more vital as millions of newly insured patients -- many with chronic conditions and little or no medical history -- enter the health care system under the Affordable Care Act. That, said Pace, gives rise to a need for technologies that deliver personalized, real-time patient data into the hands of medical staff.

One such technology comes from AirStrip, whose AirStrip ONE health care mobility solution creates a "virtual bedside" by transmitting live, secure data from medical devices, patient monitors, and electronic medical records (EMR) to smartphones and tablets. AirStrip products initially covered obstetrics and in the last several years have expanded to include cardiology, patient monitoring and EMR.

"Unless we look at automating the care continuum, we're going to have a significant challenge," said Alan Portela, president and CEO of AirStrip. With large numbers of patients entering the health care system and relatively few primary care physicians available, we now need to take the data that are clinically relevant to those physicians, whereever they are, rather than have them go to a location to look at the data, which is the model today."

According to Portela, the Affordable Care Act's emphasis on value-based care is another reason physicians will need increased access to patient data.

"We're going from fee-for-service to value-based reimbursement," said Portela. "That means I'm going to be judged on your outcome, more than you just coming into my office. So doctors are starting to say, well, if you're going to change the way you pay me, you'd better give me all the information about these patients so I can make an informed decision. I need to know your chief complaint. I need to know your family history. Sometimes you don't get access to all that information, especially when the patient is unconscious coming into the emergency department."

Finally, another company that's gained traction in the health care monitoring space is AliveCor, which makes an easy-to-use heart monitor for mobile devices. The AliveCor Heart Monitor snaps onto the back of a smartphone such as an Apple ( AAPL) iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and provides a clinical-quality electrocardiogram (ECG) recording of heart activity. Patients touch two small sensors on the back of the Heart Monitor to see a live view of their heart activity and can forward the data to their medical team for review. The device has garnered positive reviews and is available to patients with a prescription for $199.

As the ongoing shutdown of the federal government makes clear, the country remains deeply polarized over health care reform. Most Americans either embrace the Affordable Care Act warts and all, or want to lure it outside, strangle it and bury it in the desert, Breaking Bad-style. Still, if anxious thoughts about Obamacare make your heart skip a beat, don't panic: Thanks, in part, to health care reform, there's an app for that, or maybe a robot.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Doug Mollenauer mixes writing, running and traveling with bouts of technology product marketing and consulting. An East Coast native, he now resides in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the surfboard by his front door is just for show. He holds an M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. from Amherst College.

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