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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Telemedicine for the Medicare population: pediatric, obstetric, and clinician-indirect home interventions

W R Hersh, J A Wallace, P K Patterson, S E Shapiro, D F Kraemer, G M Eilers, B K Chan, M R Greenlick, M Helfand
Evidence Report/technology Assessment 2001, (24 Suppl): 1-32
11569328

BACKGROUND: This report is a supplement to an earlier evidence report, Telemedicine for the Medicare Population, which was intended to help policymakers weigh the evidence relevant to coverage of telemedicine services under Medicare. That report focused on telemedicine programs and clinical settings that had been used with or were likely to be applied to Medicare beneficiaries. While we prepared that report, it became apparent that there are also telemedicine studies among non-Medicare beneficiaries--e.g., children and pregnant women--that could inform policymakers and provide more comprehensive evidence of the state of the science regarding telemedicine applications. In addition, the first evidence report only partially included a class of telemedicine applications (called self-monitoring/testing telemedicine) in which the beneficiary used a home computer or modern-driven telephone system to either report information or access information and support from Internet resources and indirectly interact with a clinician. Self-monitoring/testing applications in the first report required direct interaction with a clinician. The goal of this report is to systematically review the evidence in the clinical areas of pediatric and obstetric telemedicine as well as home-based telemedicine where there is indirect involvement of the health care professional. (In this report, we will refer to the latter as clinician-indirect home telemedicine.) Specifically, the report summarizes scientific evidence on the diagnostic accuracy, access, clinical outcomes, satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness of services provided by telemedicine technologies for these patient groups. It also identifies gaps in the evidence and makes recommendations for evaluating telemedicine services for these populations in the future. The evidence is clustered according to three categories of telemedicine service defined in our original report: store-and-forward, self-monitoring/testing, and clinician-interactive services. The three clinical practice areas reviewed in this report are defined as follows. The term pediatric applies to any telemedicine study in which the sample consisted wholly or partially of persons aged 18 or younger, including studies with neonatal samples. The term obstetric applies to any telemedicine study in which the sample consisted entirely of women seeking pregnancy-related care. The term clinician-indirect home telemedicine applies to home-based telemedicine (called self-monitoring/testing in our original report) where a telemedicine application used in the home has only indirect involvement by the health care professional. Interactive home telemedicine was applied in this report to all patient populations.

KEY QUESTIONS: The key questions that served as a guide for reviewing the literature in the evaluation of pediatric, obstetric, and clinician-indirect home telemedicine applications were derived by consensus among the evidence-review team based on the analytic framework established for the original evidence report. For the current report, the questions were applied to studies in all three practice areas as a whole group within each of the three categories of telemedicine services: store-and-forward; self-monitoring/testing; and clinician-interactive. The specific key questions were: 1. Does telemedicine result in comparable diagnosis and appropriateness of recommendations for management? 2. Does the availability of telemedicine provide comparable access to care? 3. Does telemedicine result in comparable health outcomes? 4. Does telemedicine result in comparable patient or clinician satisfaction with care? 5. Does telemedicine result in comparable costs of care and/or cost-effectiveness?

METHODS: We searched for peer-reviewed literature using several bibliographic databases. In addition, we conducted hand searches of leading telemedicine journals and identified key papers from the reference lists of journal articles. For our original evidence report on telemedicine for the Medicare population, we designed a search to find any publications about telemedicine and used it to search the MEDLINE, CINAHL, and HealthSTAR databases for all years the databases were available. Through this process, we captured studies of pediatric, obstetric, and clinician-indirect home telemedicine; however, they were excluded from the original report since they were outside its scope. For this supplemental report, we reviewed our original search results and identified studies relevant to this report. We identified additional studies from the reference lists of included papers and from hand searching two peer-reviewed telemedicine publications, the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare and Telemedicine Journal. We critically appraised the included studies for each study area and key question and discussed the strengths and limitations of the most important studies at weekly meetings of the research team. We also developed recommendations for research to address telemedicine knowledge gaps. To match these gaps with the capabilities of specific research methods, we classified the telemedicine services according to the type of evidence that would be needed to determine whether the specific goals of covering such services had been met. We emphasized the relationship between the type and level of evidence found in the systematic review of effectiveness and the types of studies that might be funded to address the gaps in knowledge in this growing field of research.

FINDINGS: We identified a total of 28 eligible studies. In the new clinical areas, we found few studies in store-and-forward telemedicine. There is some evidence of comparable diagnosis and management decisions made using store-and-forward telemedicine from the areas of pediatric dental screening, pediatric ophthalmology, and neonatalogy. In self-monitoring/testing telemedicine for the areas of pediatrics, obstetrics, and clinician-indirect home telemedicine, there is evidence that access to care can be improved when patients and families have the opportunity to receive telehealth care at home rather than in-person care in a clinic or hospital. Access is particularly enhanced when the telehealth system enables timely communication between patients or families and care providers that allows self-management and necessary adjustments that may prevent hospitalization. There is some evidence that this form of telemedicine improves health outcomes, but the study sample sizes are usually small, and even when they are not, the treatment effects are small. There is also some evidence for the efficacy of clinician-interactive telemedicine, but the studies do not clearly define which technologies provide benefit or cost-efficiency. Some promising areas for diagnosis include emergency medicine, psychiatry, and cardiology. Most of the studies measuring access to care provide evidence that it is improved. Although none of these studies were randomized controlled trials, they provide some evidence of access improvement over prior conditions. Clinician-interactive telemedicine was the only area for which any cost studies were found. The three cost studies did not adequately demonstrate that telemedicine reduces costs of care (except comparing only selected costs). No study addressed cost-effectiveness.

CONCLUSIONS: This supplemental report covering the areas of pediatrics, obstetrics, and indirect-clinician home telemedicine echoes the findings of our initial report for the Medicare domain, which is that while the use of telemedicine is small but growing, the evidence for its efficacy is incomplete. Many of the studies are small and/or methodologically limited, so it cannot be determined whether telemedicine is efficacious. Future studies should focus on the use of telemedicine in conditions where burden of illness and/or barriers to access for care are significant. Use of recent innovations in the design of randomized controlled trials for emerging technologies would lead to higher quality studies. Journals publishing telemedicine evaluation studies must set high standards for methodologic quality so that evidence reports need not rely on studies with marginal methodologies.

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