A telehealth check-up

They call the project “”Sweet Talk,”” but that’s just sugarcoating it as far as I’m concerned.

A research team at Dundee University in the United Kingdom is working on a plan whereby diabetic teenagers will periodically receive supportive text messages from doctors over their mobile phones

about managing their treatment in between visits to the clinic. The messages will include such heart-warming reminders as “”U R IN CONTROL OF YOUR DIABETES,”” and “”GET UR FRIENDS 2 B ACTIVE.”” The people behind the trial are hoping to recruit about 100 kids between eight and 18.

The messages are not intended to replace visits with the doctor. Perhaps that’s because they’re completely generic. The Sweet Talkers are not equipping health-care providers with contact lists of patients to tap out personal missives. Instead, they are establishing a library of messages that will be administrated by a central computer system capable of supporting a limitless number of patients.

This is telehealth at its most superficial, and it provides us with some helpful early warning symptoms of a larger malady that would infect our entire health-care system. The lack of customization would render most of the messages ridiculously impersonal. Even if the library is fairly extensive, what are the chances message would be repeated? More importantly, how long before the teenagers block them out as they might TV commercials that don’t interest them?

In Canada, the application of distance technologies has given hope to a number of well-known hospitals and long-term care groups to increase their productivity, and in some cases reduce costs. We profile the efforts of one such project with Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital today. For several years now, another group of Ontario hospitals have deployed video cameras and remote monitoring software to establish the NORTH Network. This pioneering organization has offered us some genuine success stories about extending health care to rural parts of the province.Meanwhile, Ottawa-based March Networks and We Care Home Services unveiled the results of a six-month pilot study involving close to 80 people where blood pressure and other vital signs were tracked through videoconferencing and a secure Web site.

In the We Care pilot, 95 per cent of those surveyed gave telehealth high marks. That kind of statistic is important, because there is an uneasiness among many people that a human element is slowly being removed as technology becomes more important. Those involved with these kinds of projects often point to the rising life expectancy and shrinking workforce of health-care professionals like nurses. Whether you like it or not, they imply, IT may be the only way to ensure basic care.

The worst-case scenario would be if telehealth were to do to patients what banks, say, have done to customers through the introduction of telephone banking, online banking and ATMs. Though a lot of people probably don’t miss the lineups and the grouchy tellers, they might miss the personal touch when they are lying in a hospital bed — or alone in their own bed at home.

The people behind the Sweet Talk project say teenagers will benefit because they don’t always do a great job of managing their own care. The same could be said of old people, but only some old people. Understanding the limits of telehealth is as important as exploring the benefits: it is useful when it makes connections between people, but not when it reduces patients to a type. Here’s a message to send back to them: WE R INDIVIDUALS.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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