Guest Columns

Telehealth can offer savings: A case study

Larry McClain
Larry McClain

Recently, I attended the Telehealth Innovation Forum in California and was surprised to discover that telehealth technology is being widely used for long-term care. It's already helping extended care facilities save money and improve care coordination.

The Protecting Access To Medicare Act passed by Congress last year began phasing in a program to help reduce the number of SNF and extended care patients readmitted to hospitals within 30 days of discharge (regardless of the cause or condition).

Beginning in October 2018, Medicare reimbursement rates for SNFs and extended care facilities will be based on their performance scores in preventing readmissions. Poor-performing organizations will have 2% of their Medicare reimbursements withheld – and 70% of those funds will get redistributed to high-performing organizations.

The Pinnacle Health system in central Pennsylvania estimates that every 30-day readmission costs them about $8,000. Similar penalties are coming soon to the SNF world. To reduce this financial hit, Pinnacle embarked on a pilot with a telehealth program with nearby Colonial Park Care Center, a 198-bed skilled nursing center in Harrisburg, PA.

In addition to wound care, Colonial Park offers a variety of specialty care services for patients who have been discharged following strokes, heart attacks, serious pulmonary episodes and more. These patients need to be carefully monitored following their hospital stays, but it's not feasible to have specialists drop by on a daily basis. So Colonial Park deployed a telehealth robot onsite that can move itself to the patient's bedside and allow a doctor to “beam in” for a consultation.

Pinnacle and Colonial Park chose to implement this technology because it offered them a complete end-to-end solution that would allow seamless connectivity between patient and care providers, all through a secure and robust telehealth network.

Telehealth technology allows Colonial Park's supervising physician to do morning rounds in person, identifying patients whose conditions are worsening. He can then check on the patients remotely in the evening – using an iPad from his own home – as the robot glides from one patient to another.

Colonial Park nurses can also alert Pinnacle neurologists and other specialists if there's an emergency – and the doctors can beam in without having to travel or seriously disrupt their work schedule.

Savings

Within three months of deploying the technology, Colonial Park's readmissions to the Pinnacle system dropped by 5 percent, which translates to a $50,000 savings for the hospital.

Following the successful pilot at Colonial Park, Pinnacle broadened its telehealth program to seven other extended care facilities. In the last fiscal year, the program saved Pinnacle $250,000 by avoiding Medicare penalties.

After years of watching R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies, Colonial Park patients were completely comfortable with the telehealth robot. The program received very high satisfaction scores.

Since SNFs will soon be penalized for excessive hospital readmissions, telehealth technology can help them keep more revenue while improving care coordination for newly discharged patients.

Larry McClain is a healthcare writer based in Nashville, TN.


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