Thursday, July 16, 2009

UnitedHealth and Cisco push online medicine

Unitedhealth, one of the nation's largest health insurers, said Wednesday it will partner with computer networking firm Cisco Systems Inc. to create an electronic network linking patients with doctors across the country.

The cooperative project, dubbed Connected Care, will place video terminals in office buildings, malls and other locations to help patients reach health care providers at remote locations.

The effort comes as President Obama and congressional Democrats promote technology as part of a sweeping effort to make health care more efficient and affordable.

"Both the White House and Congress see this as one of the enabling technologies in the modernization of health care," said UnitedHealth Group Inc. Executive Vice President Steve Rodgers.

The combination of video conferencing and medical care also represents a significant financial opportunity for the companies. The so-called telemedicine market is expected to mushroom in coming years, as the U.S. government has already invested $2.5 billion in the technology.

Driving the demand for high-tech medical consultation is a growing shortage of primary care physicians, particularly in poor and rural areas of the country. Earlier this year the Association of American Medical Colleges said that by 2025 the U.S. will have 159,000 fewer doctors than it needs.

While some diseases will always require an in-person meeting, UnitedHealth executives say doctors can diagnose and treat a variety of ailments electronically.

"The vast majority of time doctors spend with their patients is spent talking and listening, and that can be done remotely," said Dr. Jim Woodburn, UnitedHealth's vice president and medical director.

Besides diagnosing the common cold, Woodburn said doctors can use the technology to monitor patients' weight, calorie intake and blood sugar levels.

UnitedHealth of Minnetonka, Minn., did not provide an exact price tag for the project but said it has already invested "tens of millions" of dollars in the project. Eventually executives hope to make Cisco's telemedicine technology available almost everywhere: from the home to the work place to retail centers.

"It's all about moving the center of care from the fixed brick and mortar building of the doctor's office to anywhere the patient is," said Rodgers.

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