The Unlikely Leader of the Next Health Care Revolution

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It usually takes years to become an overnight success. The world of health care should see this maxim at work soon with a technology that many have predicted for years would be huge -- telemedicine.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Telemedicine Association, or ATA, which is the largest gathering in the world focusing exclusively on telemedicine, mHealth, and telehealth. Based on the technology now available combined with economic and political winds changing, I suspect that the time for this technology to disrupt health care in a major way has finally arrived.

Here's why the telemedicine revolution hasn't taken off yet but looks primed to do so now -- and why Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) now stands as perhaps the most prominent and unlikely leader of this revolution.

A long road to the revolution
Telemedicine certainly isn't new. The ATA was founded way back in 1993, when the word twitter referred only to sounds that birds make. At least 20 years before that, some hospitals were using remote technology to provide care to patients in remote areas. 

The technology has seen considerable successes. The U.S. Veterans Health Administration operates a massive telemedicine program that monitors more than 50,000 veterans, most of them with chronic conditions. This program has reduced hospital stays by 25% and admissions by 19%. And patients like it, with satisfaction ratings of 87%.

Despite this long and often impressive track record, telemedicine still isn't used nearly as widely as you might expect. Technology research firm Gartner found that most projects currently under way are still in the pilot stage. Few, says Gartner, have achieved a level where benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

The problem isn't technological, though; it's largely political. Money is the root of much of the lack of progress. Many applications for which telemedicine could be used aren't reimbursed. If hospitals and physicians don't get paid to do something more efficiently, they're not going to do it. Regulatory hurdles also frequently prevent physicians in one state from providing care in another state unless they obtain multiple credentials.

This situation appears to be changing. A California congressman is pushing passage of a bill that would promote reimbursement for telemedicine and clear some of the regulatory roadblocks for providers. Nineteen states now have laws that require private insurers to cover telemedicine services. Four of those states enacted these laws just last month. 

Unlikely leader
Mobile technology giant Qualcomm, perhaps sensing that the tide was turning, formed a new business unit, Qualcomm Life, in late 2011. The new subsidiary's mission was to focus on remote health management and market its new 2Net cloud platform for capturing biometric data from medical devices and delivering that data to the cloud. Judging from the industry reaction to Qualcomm's platform, that mission is succeeding. 

At least 18 medical applications, 49 medical devices, and 80 service providers have aligned themselves with Qualcomm's platform in a little more than a year. At the ATA show in Austin, Texas, Qualcomm partnership signage was prominently displayed at vendor booths throughout the exhibit floor. And that's not counting the 17 different companies that demonstrated their products inside the large Qualcomm booth. Other organizations with longer tenure in telemedicine would appear to be more likely candidates for industry leadership, but Qualcomm has quickly and somewhat quietly taken the most prominent position.

It's not surprising that leading online health information provider WebMD (NASDAQ: WBMD  ) chose Qualcomm recently as its partner in building a expansive new offering. WebMD plans to integrate digital health apps and third-party devices across various disease categories and lifestyle interests to target consumers and physicians.

My take is that Qualcomm has rapidly established itself as the de facto standard for connecting with medical devices. The company isn't doing it alone, though. It teamed with Ingram Micro (NYSE: IM  ) , the world's largest technology distributor, to support the implementation, logistics, and financial services related to the 2net hub and platform. This partnership should help propagate Qualcomm's technology more effectively than the company could have done on its own.

A perfect storm
In some ways, a perfect storm seems to be happening for telemedicine. Reimbursement and regulatory obstacles could be moved out of the way soon. Demand is building for solutions to health care provider shortages and for controlling medical costs. Health reform is pushing hospitals to reach patients outside their walls increasingly more to reduce readmissions. The technology is better than ever before.

ATA CEO Jonathan Linkous thinks that use of telemedicine will double within the next few years. Research firm InMedica projects a six-fold increase in telemedicine and related technologies by 2017. I suspect they're both correct.

Telemedicine will revolutionize health care. In doing so, it will create tremendous opportunities for companies leading the way -- like Qualcomm and a few others -- as well as their investors. This slowly unfolding revolution is primed and ready for its "overnight success."

Telemedicine is a one part of an even larger mobile revolution. The mobile revolution is still in its infancy, but with so many different companies it can be daunting to know how to profit in the space. Fortunately, The Motley Fool has released a free report on mobile named "The Next Trillion-Dollar Revolution" that tells you how. The report describes why this seismic shift will dwarf any other technology revolution seen before it and also names the company at the forefront of this macro trend. You can access this report today by clicking here -- it's free.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 10, 2013, at 12:35 PM, nobody1000 wrote:

    Now if you really want it to take off and save $1 Trillion a year through IT automation, economies of scale and be FDA approved.

    1) Medicare-for-all at the state level with the federalism of subsidies in the ACA like Vermont. The issue is not sick people but to have the medical facilities when\where they are needed. There are three different business models here; rural, suburban and urban.

    2) The delivery system is fixed by using Peter Orszag's “Best Medical Practices”, interactive-electronic diagnostic and treatment workbooks and a smartphone. Here:


    The diagnostic workbooks would come back with an efficacy, statistical prognosis and cost to the patients for all the different treatment options so they can make an informed choice.

    3) Health care rebates for shopping around, positive living, etc. Similar to the way rebates work for car insurance. Based on the statistical normal cost of treatment for all the different therapies. And offer the choice of quality-of-life at the end-of-life.

    4) Giving away the patents paid for by the taxpayer and then not letting Medicare negotiate prices is wrong. But the workbooks I mentioned in #2 could have registered steps in them that would allow a business model like a 900 number. Innovation is not limited to producing a pill but only a better outcome and could be patented.

    5) Remove the health care industry anti-trust exemption.

  • Report this Comment On May 10, 2013, at 12:40 PM, kathy02001 wrote:

    as i see it obama care is a tax it leave 50 yrs and older with nothing if it so great how come congress and senate trying to get out of it it needs to repeal why cant people vote o n obama bill why dont people have asay are is he above us who elected him in people he not dictor are a king

  • Report this Comment On May 10, 2013, at 2:24 PM, frankbeisel wrote:

    We pay for a lot of bloated salaries for heatlhcare workers like administrators, compliance officers, quality assurance specialists, Human resource managers, and others whose self interest is to drive up health care costs. Over half the cost of "healthcare" is the cost of allowing business to run healthcare for a profit, and so called non-profits are run the same way, driving up costs through empire building and self serving efforts to increase their own compensation. All medical care for diagnostics could be done via the next generation of smart televisions.

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