United, Cisco plan national telehealth network

The project would provide doctors with equipment to allow virtual visits with patients in underserved areas.

By Emily Berry — Posted Aug. 14, 2009

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Two corporate giants are cooperating in what they call an effort to expand the availability of telemedicine in both rural and urban areas that are medically underserved.

UnitedHealth Group, the country's largest health plan by revenue, and Cisco, the Silicon Valley networking corporation, announced in July that they will cooperate on equipping a national network of doctors to care for patients via high-definition cameras and remote monitoring devices.

Ultimately, the project, called Connected Care, is expected to connect clinics, physician offices, workplace-based clinics, mobile clinics and even patients' homes, said Jim Woodburn, MD, vice president and medical director of telehealth for United.

The project kicked off a pilot program in New Mexico in collaboration with the Washington-based nonprofit Project HOPE, which works to expand access to medical care and education across the world.

"From the perspective of Project HOPE, this is a huge deal," said Rand Walton, a spokesman for the nonprofit.

The Connected Care network, meanwhile, will set up in multiple locations, including work sites, doctors' offices and mobile clinics, Dr. Woodburn said. He said United likely would build the Connected Care network beginning with primary care physicians in an effort to address the shortage of primary care in underserved areas.

United will pay for the telemedicine visits and expects the claims and payments to work in basically the same way face-to-face visits work, Dr. Woodburn said.

For United, which said in its announcement it would spend "tens of millions of dollars" on the project, the opportunity for savings is a part of the motivation to invest in telehealth, Dr. Woodburn said.

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