Spreading Holiday Cheer Via a Telehealth Buddy System

Dec. 29, 2014
During this holiday season, I wanted to write a blog that at least had some spirit, cheer, and positive vibes. I found that opportunity though a Massachusetts-based provider organization that is working on managing mental illnesses and chronic diseases with a Health Buddy Telehealth System.

During this holiday season, I wanted to write a blog that at least had some spirit, cheer, and positive vibes (of course the topic has to be health IT-related, or else people will wonder what industry I’m covering).

So after giving it some thought, I came back to an interview I did a few months ago with executives from Vinfen, a Cambridge, Mass.-based provider of community-based services to people with psychiatric conditions, intellectual and developmental disabilities, brain injuries, and behavioral health challenges.

For the last few years, Vinfen—with the help of technology from the Palo, Alto, Calif.-based Bosch Healthcare—has worked on managing mental illnesses and chronic diseases with a Health Buddy Telehealth System (Vinfen has been recognized as a national success community by Connect 4 Mental Health, a nationwide initiative that calls for communities to prioritize serious mental illness). No, it’s not a real live buddy, but rather an appliance about the size of a clock radio with four large buttons that the patient pushes to answer questions and learn more information about his or her illness.

Here’s some background: In 2012, Vinfen was awarded a three-year Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) Health Care Innovation Award to develop a project entitled “Community Based Health Homes for Individuals with Serious Mental Illness.” The project created community-based behavioral health homes that provide a Health Buddy along with access to a nurse practitioner.

The Health Buddy system enables people with chronic medical and psychiatric conditions to answer simple questions and connect with their healthcare teams daily. The device may then ask for more details, provides coaching on self-management, and sends messages off to a person’s care team to follow up as needed. For example, the device will begin each day by welcoming the patient with a “Good morning. How are you feeling?” The patient responds by pushing one of four buttons that have different answers assigned to them.

Then, for a diabetes patient, for instance, the system will ask the patient to check his or blood sugar, and provide information about why this is important. You don’t have to be computer literate, but it does require a fourth-grade reading level, Vinfen officials say. Meanwhile, the healthcare professional at Vinfen checks a report from the device every day from his or her desktop computer application, letting the nurse know how people are doing and any needs they may have.

Vinfen has already found that the program has led to significant improvement in health and reduction in emergency room use. Within the early phase of implementation, Vinfen estimated that the project averted 71 emergency room visits for 34 participants—people who often rely on emergency care in the absence of longer-term health management., according to a Vinfen blog post from September. The system has also led to an estimated $3.79 million in savings, Vinfen officials say.

When I spoke to Bruce Bird, Ph.D., CEO of Vinfen, and Elizbeth Cella, a project manager at the organization, they were so happy to talk to me about this program. Bird said Vinfen has a team of a dozen professional and outreach workers who take care of approximately 120 patients. He also noted the cost savings of the Health Buddy system compared to having a healthcare professional go out to see the patient every day. Bird also said that not everyone is interested in using the device, noting that some people they work with are suspicious of technology in general.  But for those who do opt to try it out, they’ve seen remarkable adherence and engagement.

However, the enthusiasm of the two Vinfen executives reached another level when they talked about the particular patient population they serve, and why this system has become so meaningful for them. Undoubtedly, the concept of using technology to improve healthcare is relatively new in the approach to mental health, which is a shame because according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine, about 1 in 4 adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. “Our patient population is profoundly isolated, they lack support, need encouragement, and we don’t have resources to do that on a daily basis,” Cella told me. “It’s called a buddy, and people do really talk to it. They feel less isolated and more empowered. They can better control their health. Without that sense of control, there is no behavior change,” she said.

We know that not everyone has equal access to healthcare in this country, and many people are wary or unsure of where to get care. Oftentimes, the ER is the place people assume is the place to go when they’re sick. But during this time of the year it’s good to know that the less fortunate and less able could have a “buddy” to help them get through the day. Happy holidays, everyone!

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