Editor’s Take: Telehealth is Dead, and Good Riddance

Does no one care about telehealth?

That question has been on my mind for a while now, and it all goes back to one of my favorite daily activities: checking our Home Health Care News website stats, to see which articles are getting the most attention from readers.

Often, we can predict which articles will be getting the most love, in the form of clicks and shares. CMS announces Medicare payments are getting cut? Everyone wants to read about that.

Also, headlines that link home care with world-beating tech companies like Uber, Google and Amazon are reliable blockbusters. One of the year’s most-read stories so far: Startup Raises $20 Million to Launch ‘Uber for Home Care.’

There also are stories that don’t generate as much interest, but we understand why. Maybe it’s an interesting topic, but it appeals to a narrower cross-section of our readership.

But then there are stories that are stumpers—we can’t figure out why no one is reading them. And over time, we also notice some trends that have us scratching our heads. One of those trends that I’ve noticed is that putting the word “telehealth” in a headline is the kiss of death. We may as well put that story in a casket and bury it, because no one’s going to be reading it.

Okay, maybe that’s exaggerating a bit … some of those articles, like Telehealth Skyrocketing to 158 Million Sessions Per Year by 2020, do pretty well. But given what that headline says and implies—that telehealth is set to totally explode and transform the way care is provided in people’s homes—I would think our readers would be ravenous for any story having to do with telehealth, whether it’s about a new product, the results of a study, tips for implementing the technology successfully, or what have you.

I came up with a few theories as to why, despite the topic’s importance, telehealth stories tend to bomb or be only mildly popular.

First, “telehealth” is a such a bummer of a word. It reminds me of “telephone”—a term that is so last century.

Then there’s the fact that it’s kind of vague, so maybe readers don’t get a clear sense of what an article about “telehealth” really is going to be about. What does telehealth mean? Remote monitoring? Virtual doctors’ visits?

Even the Wikipedia definition focuses on the broadness of the concept: “Telehealth could be as simple as two health professionals discussing a case over the telephone or as sophisticated as doing robotic surgery between facilities at different ends of the globe.”

But in the last few weeks I’ve been concocting a different, and I think more interesting, theory.

It all started at the NAHC Financial Management Conference in Nashville, where a panelist immediately got my attention by uttering this phrase: “Telehealth is dead.”

As you can imagine, I was excited (no more telehealth headlines!) but confused (what about the 158 million sessions?). So I paid close attention to the explanation that was forthcoming from the panelist, Beau Sorenson, COO at First Choice Home Health & Hospice in Provo, Utah.

His point really was that telehealth as we’ve known it is dead. One sign of its passing: the recent shuttering of Bosch Healthcare Systems, a notable developer of telehealth solutions.

Bosch has been involved in patent lawsuits that no doubt contributed to its closure, but Sorenson raised another point: Bosch’s dedicated telehealth devices are being made obsolete by the the iPhone and similar consumer-oriented tech.

“You don’t need a black box in your home that connects over a plain old telephone line or a cellular line anymore [for telehealth],” he said. “Instead, you’ve got something that connects by Bluetooth over your phone out to your health care provider.”

Our smartphones and Apple watches are powerful, multipurpose devices and they’re already amazingly sophisticated telehealth tools, he said. Example: There’s an app that COPD patients can use to gauge their lung capacity at any given moment by blowing into their phone speaker.

Other apps can track a whole range of indicators to give insight into a wide variety of disease processes and alert home care or other providers about when to intervene to prevent hospitalization. And, of course, there’s the preventive piece as well, as these apps are empowering individuals to take care of themselves more effectively.

And, we are just seeing the tip of this particular iceberg. Look around at how innovative app developers are utilizing these devices, and you can get an idea of what the future holds for home care and health care generally, Sorenson said.

Take Periscope, an app that lets you broadcast whatever you’re doing at any time. Adapt that for home health and it’s “like a face-to-face visit right there on your phone,” he said.

Since that conference in Nashville, I’ve been hearing even more about how existing companies that aren’t known primarily for telehealth, or even health care in general, are positioned to be the real movers and shakers in this realm.

At the White House Conference on Aging last Monday, a panel included leaders from Uber and Peapod and other innovative outfits that have leveraged tech to transform the way that basic services are delivered and needs are met. They spoke about how seniors already are an important part of their consumer base, and their latest efforts to specifically serve this population.

After the conference, I spoke with Bruce Chernof, M.D., president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. He also namechecked Uber and Peapod and suggested that home care providers could create partnerships with these and similar companies in the future.

Maybe, I began to think, our readers have been way ahead of us on this. Perhaps they can tell that those clunky “black boxes” that have been on the market—which are associated with that bland and vague word “telehealth”—aren’t sticking around. And they understand that the slicker, more consumer-friendly tech created by companies like Uber and Apple, which isn’t grouped in that traditional telehealth category, is where the future lies.

That would explain the collective yawn that “telehealth” causes, and the excitement generated by stories with, say, Airbnb in the headline.

Of course, this is just a theory, and I’d love to hear how wrong I am—or that I’m onto something. So take to the comments section and let me know where you stand, and explain why you get excited about telehealth stories or why they’re a snooze.

In the meantime, I’m going to act like telehealth is dead and try to keep that word out of HHCN headlines. While I don’t want to cheer the failure of companies like Bosch, I do think it would be great if the word “telehealth” disappears as they shut their doors.

Yet even as I want to kill the word “telehealth,” I’m excited that the concept—thanks to Apple, Uber and a whole galaxy of tech companies pushing the envelope—may really be coming to life.

Written by HHCN Editor and Reporter Tim Mullaney