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January 9, 2015

How Health Tech Is Changing Work Comp

Summary:

Telemedicine, Google Glass, wearable monitor, Internet-connected sensors, 3D printing and robotic devices can all improve quality and cut costs.

Photo Courtesy of epSos.de

The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) changed both the dialogue and dynamics of healthcare in this country. It has also brought employers a new set of challenges and opportunities.

Seemingly uncontrollable medical costs have plagued virtually all businesses in recent decades. The medical component of claim costs now accounts for well over half of the total workers’ compensation cost make-up.

In addition, as more individuals have signed up for coverage under the ACA legislation, the demand on the system for healthcare services is becoming increasingly strained. This demand, coupled with a projected shortage of physicians, has made access to care a more prominent workers’ compensation concern.

The offshoot of such pressures and constraints is a strong and unyielding focus on healthcare technology developments and advancements. The rapidity with which such innovations are being made, and the advances planned in the healthcare treatment and delivery landscape in the coming years, are phenomenal. Undoubtedly, technology will play an increasingly important role in maintaining employees’ well-being and fostering their recovery in the future.

Some of the technological advancements that are available today and on the verge of exploding onto the healthcare scene include telemedicine, Google Glass, wearable monitoring devices, Internet-connected sensors, 3D printing and robotic devices. These are designed to increase the efficiencies associated with delivering healthcare and maximize the providers’ time and talents.

Below are some additional details on these innovations and the advantages they can bring to the workers’ compensation industry.

Telemedicine
The American Telemedicine Association defines telehealth as remote healthcare technology designed to deliver clinical services. This could include alternatives ranging from medical providers consulting patients by phone to performing robotic surgery from a remote location. Telemedicine can certainly benefit injured or ill employees in situations such as nurse triaging and clinical consultation. For example, using telehealth, a nurse at a remote location can evaluate symptoms and determine whether an injured employee needs to be seen directly or can be discharged with instructions for homecare. Telehealth can also be used to reduce or even eliminate wait times and thus, appointment costs. A patient visiting an occupational healthcare provider who needs an evaluation from an orthopedist could have it right on the spot via a conference call during which the test results are projected onto a screen visible to the specialist.

Google Glass
Google Glass technology is being used today to maximize the time and talents of specialty providers and bring high-level expertise to remote areas of the country. One of its most valuable applications is in surgery. For example, a surgeon in New York could assist a surgical team in rural Oregon and show them precisely where to make an incision for a given procedure. Google Glass can also increase a physician’s efficiency in seeing and assessing patient conditions. A patient’s electronic health records could be displayed on Google Glass as a physician is conducting an initial assessment. Information such as medical history or current symptoms and medications could be reviewed in real-time as the physician converses with the patient and determines ensuing treatment. Moreover, in coming years, patients may use Google Glass to assess and evaluate physicians based on available information and reviews appearing on their own display.

Wearable monitoring devices
A number of wearable healthcare monitoring devices have flooded the market and have become popular among a select set of consumers. They are frequently worn around the wrist and can monitor physical information, such as calories burned, steps taken, activity, blood pressure, heart rate, sleep patterns and other defined metrics. These devices help increase awareness among users. For example, if a morning run is missed and step count is down, the individual may be more inclined to take the stairs, park farther away from the building or consume fewer calories. The next step is for users to begin sharing this information with their medical providers as a way of becoming more engaged healthcare consumers. Such information would allow a physician to customize a healthcare treatment plan specifically for that individual as opposed to relying on more general treatment guidelines.

Internet-connected sensors 
Sensors are being used and will become more readily available in the future as a way of monitoring and communicating an individual’s condition. For example, an individual who has recently undergone surgery may have sensors in his shoes to send an alert if he becomes unstable, thereby increasing the risk of a fall. Such sensors may trigger an alert to a smartphone, dashboard or other monitoring device signaling that the individual needs assistance. With the additional capabilities of these devices, resources can be deployed where and when needed, allowing for more effective and efficient care.

3D printing
3D printing is perhaps one of the most fascinating and promising medical advancements. Using 3D printing, experts have produced replicas of human hearts, which allow surgeons to perform a procedure in advance of an actual operation, improving quality and outcomes. 3D printing is also being used to produce human skin. This technology can be a tremendous benefit to burn victims and can reduce recovery time considerably. It also shows promise in aiding back surgeries. Previously, titanium plates were inserted between disks, and bone would grow around these plates. 3D printing allows the production of cellular structures that can become part of the bone growth itself. Such advancements are expected to reduce the need for repeat surgeries.

Robotic devices
Robotic devices are being used now and will likely become more common. One of their current uses is to help extend the efficiency and effectiveness of nurses and allow them to focus more specifically on patient needs and priorities. For example, when a nurse is recording vital signs, a robot can be used to retrieve supplies, allowing the nurse to spend more time providing valuable patient care. Looking further into the future, robots may be used to provide more extended patient care.

These types of medical technology advancements are helping to create a culture of connected health that will redefine our treatment and delivery system. While new challenges and risks will arise, technology will play a prominent role in tomorrow’s healthcare. In the not-too-distant future, the amount of real-time information and communication that can be shared instantaneously is hard to imagine. This will allow for more productive and cost-effective interactions among patients, providers, employers, payers and caretakers. A more effective and efficient healthcare system characterized by improved quality and outcomes is a win-win situation for virtually all workers’ compensation stakeholders, and one that could quickly become a reality in today’s world.

Preparation breeds optimism, and employers have the opportunity to prepare for the roll-out of the new healthcare legislation using digital health advancements. The suite of health technology tools, companies offering solutions in this space and the advanced products described above are all part of the newly evolving digital health arena, and undoubtedly these advancements will be part of a broader solution.

In looking ahead, the convergence of digital health solutions with evolving healthcare delivery models has the potential to significantly improve access to care, address quality concerns and assist with costs. This would enable consumers to become more engaged and active in their health and, in turn, lead to improved health and productivity for employers. This would be a workers’ compensation offshoot by which we could all stand.

This article first appeared at WorkCompWire.

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About the Author

Kimberly George is a senior vice president, senior healthcare adviser at Sedgwick. She will explore and work to improve Sedgwick’s understanding of how healthcare reform affects its business models and product and service offerings.

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