UnitedHealth tries to catch the telemedicine wave

July 1, 2010 by MedCity News

In the foreseeable future, patients may not only be able to actually talk to their doctor on the phone, but also look at them while the doctor accesses their medical history, listens to their heart beat and and checks their eyes, ears, nose and throat.

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By Thomas Lee

In the not-too-distant-future, Dr. Jim Woodburn says, patients can reach their doctors on the phone.

If that doesn't sound too impressive, consider this: the doctor can literally see the patient, access medical histories, listen to heart beats, and check the eyes, ears, nose, and throat- all from the other side of the country.

"Telemedicine is going to be as common as the telephone," said Woodburn, the former chief medical officer of MinuteClinic who now oversees UnitedHealth Group Inc.'s (NYSE:UNH) ambitious effort to build the first national telemedicine network.

Long touted by experts as a way to cut costs and expand patient access to doctors, remote medicine is increasingly drawing the interest of medical, software and telecommunications companies. The market for health-related mobile services and devices will hit nearly $2 billion by 2013, according to a report by law firm Pike & Fischer.

Datamonitor, a provider of online database and analysis services, forecasts that annual spending on telehealth hardware, software and related services will nearly triple over the next three years, from the current $2.4 billion to $6.1 billion in 2012.

"Mobile technology is proving to be a major cost and time saver in the medical environment, and as a result, represents a significant evolutionary step in the field of modern medical treatment and preventive care," Pike & Fischer said. " This technology allows specialists to triage, diagnose and monitor remote medical cases by viewing data and images conveyed wirelessly to their location."

WellPoint Inc. recently said it will offer its members access to doctors via the Internet and text messaging. Last year, Verizon Communications said it will launch an online physician video chat service called Telehealth Collaboration.