Prior to 2020, the annual event of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) was the flagship gathering, the national telehealth conference to see and be seen. With the Covid-19 health crisis putting telehealth on the mind of every healthcare leader, multiple national healthcare events (VIVE, HLTH, and HIMSS to name a few) are now prominently featuring a focus on telehealth.

This year once more I decided not to attend — not only because it often interferes with my daughter’s May 1st birthday, but also because after attending (and exhibiting) for a few years I started to experience a diminishing rate of return.

In its heyday the conference attracted up to 6,000 attendees and over 800 vendors, though interest had already started waning a bit before Covid.

However, this week’s Telehealth Tuesday column is not intended to comment on the ATA’s metamorphosis since Jonathan Linkous stepped out of the leadership role after co-creating and leading the ATA for more than two decades.

Rather I’m replaying (and commenting on) fellow Telehealth consultant Peter Caplan’s account of his attendance that he graciously shared with me and offered to share with my Telehealth Tuesday subscribers.

ATA 2022 – Small(er) but Still Very Varied

Writes Peter: “The recently held annual conference, the first since 2019, was a subdued yet upbeat event. Not quite the attendance figures or vendor exhibitors of pre-pandemic years (approx. 2,000 attendees, 227 vendors), but certainly plenty of new and improved products and services from both well-established market leaders to startups vying for attention and an interested listener. “

This year, the conference tracks included timely breakout sessions focused on several major themes transcending ATA’s typical focus on technology: Ending Inequity, Everyday Care, Hybrid Care, Policy Priorities, Proof Points, and Technology Framework.

“Each of the breakout sessions had dozens of insightful presentations and there were numerous fireside chats and keynotes from telehealth executives and customers, as well as deep-dive sessions exploring program details.”

Being known for its well-rounded program spanning research, policy, and technology, this year’s sessions included “a live pitch competition for new innovators (many pitching forward-looking solutions), panel discussions, research posters, meet & greet the authors of several recently published telehealth books, and networking opportunities throughout the event both virtually and in-person.”

From the Exhibit Floor

“Given the smaller turnout of vendors and a very spacious exhibit hall, one could easily stroll among the booths, allowing for plenty of chats with a number of vendors about the show, their products & services, the sales cycle, competition and growth, the on-going investment in healthcare technology solutions, and where they see the near term future heading.

“Most vendors were optimistic but pragmatic in their assessment of the competitive marketplace. A growing number of established incumbents are facing strong competition from more nimble and agile start-ups — or present potential opportunities for collaboration or acquisition.”

With long sales cycles, a huge influx of venture capital (close to $30B of digital health digital health investments in 2021 alone), and no shortage of innovative engineering ideas, the telehealth industry has seen “a tremendous explosion in new companies trying to build a better mouse-trap with greater functionality, at a lower cost, a demonstrable ROI, better analytics, outcomes dashboards and superb staff and patient engagement.”

Predictably and understandably most vendors talked about what they know best: technology. So it’s no surprise that Peter reports that “a common theme among vendors and presenters was the necessity and ability of healthcare organizations to design, build, and implement interoperable solutions within the enterprises’ infrastructure and technologies.”

Yet while (technical) integration and interoperability is important, what’s even more critical (and not often talked about in vendor circles) is the definition and integration of workflows! Technical interoperability without workflow interoperability will not achieve the potential benefits that technology could otherwise provide. But I digress…

Another theme Peter highlighted was an increasing focus to “integrate data gathering and analytics to create actionable data centers that support both clinician and patient at the point-of-care.”

As a life-long numbers geek and with a recent focus back into the worlds of data-driven decision making and fact-based management, I welcome the vendors investments into working on the efficacious, actionable presentation of data.

From Video Visits to Vital Signs

While Covid opened the doors (and minds) for video visits, the industry has long been pushing the potential for periodic and continuous monitoring of physiological metrics, aka, RPM (remote physiological monitoring).

To that end Peter reports that, “several vendors are packaging multi-purpose portable remote monitoring kits and carts for both the clinician’s office and patient’s home. These kits include Wi-Fi enabled cameras/digital scopes, monitors, and sensors for weight, blood glucose, pulse, heart rate, temperature and when combined with access to mobile or urgent care site imaging and lab tests, patients can now have a virtual first primary care relationship with access to clinics when necessary.“

While RPM in the past decade(s) mostly emphasized non-acute chronic disease management or post-acute surveillance for readmission prevention, recent technological advances, policy decisions and overflowing wards during the height of the Covid-19 health crisis led to an accelerated interest in Hospital at Home programs.

Here’s his related observation from the ATA: “These products are in response to the growth in Remote Patient Monitoring and the Hospital@Home programs, and the paradigm shift from reactive to proactive healthcare, empowering individuals to manage and maintain their health and wellness through guided education with access to health tools and resources. This emerging care delivery model is necessary for the transition from fee-for-service to value based care, a topic that could have been covered in more detail in a breakout session.”

From Health Access to Health Equity

Another trend Peter observed was the use of telehealth to improve health equity:

“Telehealth by its very nature should offer access to care for everyone able to access the Internet or has cell service. Health equity seems to be on the mind of most administrators and as such, many sessions focused on digital inclusion, care diversity, health and technology literacy, as well as patient engagement — leveraging technology to meet patients where they are and when it works best for them.

“A major topic of discussion was the increasing importance of identifying, understanding, and responding to the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) as a means of addressing chronic health conditions and the ability of patients to successfully manage their health. These social factors in large part determine a patient’s ability to successfully maintain their health and keep their treatment and medication costs under control.

“Through purposeful engagement and clear action steps, patients and providers can track and monitor treatment compliance before adverse conditions arise. This is key to a successful hybrid care delivery system and how vendors are developing comprehensive digital strategies.”

Harnessing the Data through AI

One of the keynote speakers at the last ATA I attended was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who enlightened me with different interpretations of AI (and IA), as covered in his book “Thank you for being late”. In his talk he distinguished four definitions: Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Intelligence, Intelligent Assistance, and Intelligent Assistants.

While data is undoubtedly healthcare’s biggest and most egregiously underutilized asset (strategically, operationally, financially, and clinically!), it is no surprise that this year another area of focus was AI – and the growing investments in a multitude of applications.

Observes Peter: “In conjunction with population health analytics, AI will have a substantial impact on care delivery as it relates to patient risk stratification, resource allocation, staff training & productivity, and patient participation and satisfaction. Big data will drive many strategic initiatives as demonstrating and documenting success, outcomes, and engagement will be required to maintain or grow investment.

But wait, there’s more!

Of course a mainstay topic of ANY telehealth conference is the never ending story of policies, reimbursement (or the lack of it) and the lament that we are still not in a value-based environment (where it would not matter if we talk to the same patient twice in a day for just 3 minutes at a time, if this is the clinically right thing to do!).

“As always, the ATA covered the topics of: reimbursement (future of parity reimbursement after the PHE), interstate licensure (adoption of interstate clinical compacts), post PHE policies and waivers (will they be continued or reverted back), the need for mental health clinicians (especially when integrated with primary care practice or when supporting EDs with emergency assessments), health equity/inclusion/diversity, rural healthcare access, and using technology to avoid clinician burnout were among the other leading topics addressed. Health IT security was an area of interest for many as the concern for security and privacy breaches is a growing and expensive concern for many healthcare systems.

Aside from the aforementioned mixed bag of mainstay telehealth topics a, “a number of presentations focused on the ROI of telehealth both from a financial and revenue standpoint and a clinical efficacy standpoint. Financially, for most organizations the value lies in reducing missed or canceled appointments and lowering the readmission rate for patients with associated readmission cost or penalties.

After the 25 year honeymoon period of telehealth, we are now seeing an increase in scrutiny on the clinical efficacy as well: “Did the intervention achieve a desired outcome comparable to or better than an in-person visit at a lower cost with greater convenience for both patient and clinician? In many cases the simple answer is yes but the better comparison is between a telehealth visit and no visit at all. “

ATA 2022 in Summary

In Peter’s words: “Telehealth is becoming a standard of care for many conditions as more hospitals and clinicians are adopting and adapting the technology as a strategy for optimizing and maximizing their performance. Telehealth is also proving more and more as a valuable stepping stone and tool in the transition from a fee-for-service to value-based, accountable care delivery model.

“All told, this year’s ATA conference continued to provide a wealth of information; hosted many familiar and a number of new vendors; and provided a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate regarding the latest industry developments. I look forward to next year’s event and to reconnect with colleagues whose company I have missed the past 3 years.”

If you couldn’t join the ATA 2022 in person, I’m sure you are as grateful as I am for Peter’s excellent in-depth summary of what was covered.

Maybe we’ll see each other there in 2023!

Were you at ATA 2022? What highlights stood out to you? Post your comments below!

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Christian Milaster and his team optimize Telehealth Services for health systems and physician practices. Christian is the Founder and President of Ingenium Digital Health Advisors where he and his expert consortium partner with healthcare leaders to enable the delivery of extraordinary care.

Contact Christian by phone or text at 657-464-3648, via email, or video chat.