UnitedHealth has exhibited certain tendencies in a past to trample on the rights of physicians and patients (see, for example: UnitedHealth Settles Suit with New York Attorney General Cuomo; UnitedHealth Draws Criticism for Its Out-of-Network Reimbursement Policies; UnitedHealth Receives Warning Letter for Posting Doctor List) and also been involved in an options scandal involving its CEO (UnitedHealth CEO to leave amid options probe). Now comes the news that it will build, in collaboration with Cisco, a telehealth network (see: UnitedHealth, Cisco to Build Telehealth Network). Below is an excerpt from the story:
UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. announced a partnership to build a network linking patients and physicians across the country via video and medical-information technology, establishing a foothold in a telehealth market that is expected to grow to more than $6 billion by 2012. UnitedHealth, the country's second-largest health insurer, said it is investing tens of millions of dollars in building the open network with Cisco's video-conferencing, broadband and other medical-networking capabilities. The network will incorporate an array of technologies from other companies as well, such as fiber-optic cameras for looking into ears and digital medical records, creating a virtual doctor visit....Ultimately, UnitedHealth and Cisco say they plan to connect thousands of physicians and hospitals with patients in rural and underserved areas, simulating in-person physician visits from terminals in homes, malls, workplace sites and other outlets. The insurer said it hopes to add the telehealth network to the vast arsenal of health-care services it already sells, such as medical-claims processing systems and consulting services to hospitals. It also plans to integrate the telehealth services into health plans that it administers for employers, state Medicaid programs and other customers....One major challenge so far has been that Medicare and most private insurers don't reimburse for remote health-care services. But that is expected to change as health plans come under more pressure to reduce costs and improve the quality of care.
For more than at least a decade, I have been reading rosy predictions about the future of telemedicine and telehealth. Permit me, please, to view this new announcement by UnitedHealth and Cisco with a certain measure of skepticism. Note the obligatory reference in the article to the need to provide services to "patients in rural and underserved areas." This doesn't quite seem to mesh with the next sentence in the same article the references the company's vast arsenal of health-care services that it already sells to hospitals and others. I believe that UnitedHealth will always place emphasis on the bottom line and it's a little hard to understand how the company intends to wring revenue out of rural and underserved populations. However and more to the point, I am really not that concerned about whether UnitedHealth and Cisco have a telemedicine business model that will be successful. What concerns me more is the thought of UnitedHealth exercising a high degree of control over the clinical data transmitted over a network. In my opinion, this is worrisome, given some of the company's past issues.