The University of Southern California is bringing virtual reality to specialty care. Keck Medicine, USC's academic medical center, has launched a virtual care clinic that it believes will improve efficiency and reduce costs by allowing more patients to receive healthcare services through virtual providers.
USC's Center for Body Computing, the health system's digital health and innovation arm, has assembled eight partners for the initiative. These partners include IMS Health, insurer VSP Global and USC's own Institute for Creative Technologies, best known for its computer-generated “virtual humans.”
The initiative goes well beyond traditional telemedicine, the market for which is expected to grow at a rate of more than 50% a year, according to data and analytics firm IHS.
Using the tools developed at the Institute for Creative Technologies, doctors at Keck Medicine will be able to do more than just examine patients remotely. They'll be able to use virtual reality to perform the tasks that are routine and can be automated and take up a significant portion of their time.
Much of the care that patients receive from their doctors can actually be delivered through artificial intelligence, USC believes. Wearable biosensors can help form a diagnosis. Virtual clinicians can help patients understand the pros and cons of choosing one treatment option over another.
But it's not about replacing doctors as much as allowing virtual doctors to take over some of the more repetitive tasks their human counterparts perform, said Tom Jackiewicz, CEO of Keck Medicine at USC.
“Faculty expertise is our greatest resource,” Jackiewicz said. “There's a limit to their capacity. A lot of people come in for small things that they don't really need to come in for.”
Virtual reality also can provide a better patient experience, allowing people to digest information in a more relaxed setting, when they're not wearing a paper gown in a doctor's office, said Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing. As a cardiologist, Saxon might have six or seven patients each day who need a defibrillator. Each case is different, but the decision-making tools she provides to patients are largely the same.
That's where the repetition comes in. And that's where a virtual doctor can help discuss the risks and benefits of a particular drug or medical procedure.
The approach “empowers (patients) to feel in control of their healthcare,” Saxon said. It also allows them to have a more informed conversation with their doctor when they are in the office. “It's not a patriarchal system anymore but a partnership.”
Saxon estimated that virtual care can reduce about 60% to 80% of the cost of healthcare. “We can save our brick and mortar facilities for those who need it,” she added.
The CMS has been pushing providers to offer more cost-effective care by funneling more payments through value-based contracts.
“From a strategic perspective, the timing of this couldn't be better,” Jackiewicz said.
Some insurers may be willing to cover virtual care under their benefit plans, but USC is still working out the business model for offering virtual services, Saxon acknowledged.
But with VSP on board, USC's ophthalmologists will be the first providers employing virtual care at the academic medical center's Eye Institute. Specialists at USC's Institute of Urology also will be among the specialists piloting the technology.
The goal, however, is to ultimately have all 1,500 USC physicians and researchers offering virtual care.
The other five partners are Dr. Medicine, a database of peer-reviewed clinical trials research; Karten Design, a digital health and medical technology company; Medable, which builds HIPAA-compliant healthcare apps; Planet Grande, a video creator; and Proteus Digital Medicine, which makes pills that function as ingestible sensors.