Telehealth is an emerging field that links patients and physicians across the country and beyond via video and health information technology. The telecommunications giant AT&T is investing heavily in this growing “telehealth” industry.

For the past year, AT&T scientists have focused on the home health market, developing prototypes of products that will integrate into the telehealth field. One of these products is a ‘smart slipper’ that has insole technology with four pressure sensors and a 3-axis accelerometer that reads how well a person is walking.

With billions of Federal stimulus dollars being allocated to advancing health information technology, AT&T’s push into the market comes at an opportune time.  While people speculate that telehealth could have the potential to increase access to care to underserved populations and greatly improve communication between physicians and patients, there is still research to be done.

Despite telehealth’s potential, there are relatively few specific examples of how telehealth might improve patient outcomes and reduce healthcare costs. To address this, AT&T is embarking on plans for pilot programs to test various telehealth and health IT products. A major focus of those pilot programs should be to test the usability, reliability, and validity of the monitoring and communication devices, as errors could actually end up costing more healthcare dollars.

Maintaining a patient’s privacy is also a big concern as more telehealth products and services emerge. Data should be easily transferred and accessible to those who need it, such as medical professionals and patients themselves, but sensitive medical data must be stored securely and encrypted as it moves across a service provider’s network. To address this issue, AT&T is using guidelines established under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, as its standard while developing its telehealth portfolio. However, HIPAA doesn’t specifically address telehealth services.

Medical provider acceptance will also be a challenge for telehealth initiatives and products, as evidence in the ability for telehealth to yield a return on investment is lacking. This evidence will also be needed to convince insurance companies that these services are worthy of payment.

As the HITECH Act propels the adoption of health IT, it may be inevitable that in the near future, we will wear slippers that talk to our doctors, and virtually receive doctor office visits and communicate with medical professionals. However, before we get to this point, there must be a tremendous amount of research done to prove the feasibility and effectiveness of using telehealth in the delivery of medical care.