Dialing up telemedicine

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

MELBOURNE, Fla. - Few people working in the HME industry today have as much perspective as Shelly Prial. The 79-year-old elder statesman has seen it all over the past 50 years--as a pharmacist, sales agent and president of the Homecare Providers Co-op.
Well known for his business acumen, oration skills and strategic thinking, Prial still maintains a high profile in the HME industry, giving presentations at Medtrade and state association meetings, working as a consultant and serving as government relations adviser to Atlanta-based Graham-Field.
So when he gets excited about something, there must be a good reason. And he's ecstatic over the possibilities of telemedicine. For the past two years, he's been preaching its virtues to anyone who will listen. In fact, he's talked about almost nothing else during that time.
He recently spoke to HME News about the topic that has stoked his enthusiasm and why he believes providers should seize the opportunity this new market presents.
HME news: We've heard about telemedecine--or telehealth--for a few years now. What is it, exactly?
Shelly Prial: Telemedicine consists of equipment that allows physicians, home health agencies, visiting nurses and other healthcare professionals to monitor a patient's vital signs from a remote location without having to see them in person. By using electronic communications tools, professional caregivers can control their costs by being able to check on a patient without having to send a technician or nurse to make a personal house call.
HME: How did you discover telemedicine?
Prial: I attended the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) exhibition in Tampa a couple of years ago and there were various new home telehealth units on display. While I was there, I met a physician from rural Kansas, who was looking for a way to monitor patients who were as far as 125 miles away from his office. His plan was to obtain 15 to 20 home telehealth units to place in a patient's home and establish a base station in his office. This way, he could check on his patients regularly. The cost for being able to care for patients who were not around the corner did not seem prohibitive to him. He was satisfied that home telehealth was the answer.
HME: Where can HME providers find opportunity in telemedicine?
Prial: The market is a big cherry waiting to be plucked. HME providers are in a perfect position to be the purveyor of the telemedicine equipment. They sit in the center of the healthcare network between the manufacturers, medical professionals and patients. They know which patients have COPD, CHF and diabetes; they know the family, the caregivers, home health nurses and physicians. The idea is to lease the equipment from the manufacturer and furnish it to the medical professionals who use the equipment.
HME: Why does this role make sense for the provider?
Prial: For one thing, the provider has the tangible assets to offer the bank as security for a loan to obtain the equipment. Home health agencies don't have that ability. What's more, physicians and agencies are looking for a supplier to serve as their profit center. They will be reliable, repeat customers. That is where the opportunity is for the provider.
HME: What must the provider do to obtain the equipment?
Prial: Home telehealth equipment is costly, so I recommend leasing it from the manufacturer. Check with your local bank or leasing specialist like VGM Financial Services. I recommend negotiating a five-year lease with a $1 buyout.
HME: Are telemedicine equipment vendors currently seeking HME providers to perform in this role?
Prial: I'd say we're still six months to a year from establishing relations with telehealth manufacturers. I've spoken to the ATA about the value of HME providers, and they are starting to realize that they need an effective healthcare partner.