New telemedicine tech maintains patient privacy

Telemedicine -- when patients visit doctors over video chat -- is becoming more popular. But there are challenges for the tech providers in keeping patient information confidential. CNET's Kara Tsuboi profiles one Silicon Valley firm that's working to keep things private.

Kara Tsuboi Reporter
Kara Tsuboi has covered technology news for CNET and CBS Interactive for nearly seven years. From cutting edge robotics at NASA to the hottest TVs at CES to Apple events in San Francisco, Kara has reported on it all. In addition to daily news, twice every week her "Tech Minutes" are broadcast to CBS TV stations across the country.
Kara Tsuboi
3 min read

Here's the scenario: a mom has a baby recovering from an ear infection. He's doing fine, but the doctor wants to do a follow-up visit to make sure he took the antibiotics well and is on the mend. The problem is that it's a hassle for the mother to load the baby and her toddler into the car to drive an hour each way for a quick 15-minute visit. Here's a solution: telemedicine, or a video chat on a computer or tablet with a physician from the comfort of the family's home.

Such chats are becoming more and more common as people see the convenience and value of telemedicine while realizing they don't have to compromise the quality of care, or their privacy. The onus is now on the technology service providers to ensure the video chat is 100 percent secure. Enter VSee, a Silicon Valley-based company that's created the first iPad telehealth app that is FDA-registered and HIPAA-compliant. It's also free to download and free for patients to use the base-level service. "Before, you had this big cost barrier for people who do telemedicine. This is why you don't really see Telemedicine in people's homes. We're able to take that big barrier and reduce it down to nothing," says VSee CEO Milton Chen.

Watch this: Tech privately connects patients to doctors

VSee has been able to make their service cost effective by eliminating the need for users to invest in an expensive server. All they need to do is install an application on their computers or tablets. As far as privacy concerns, VSee uses end-to-end encryption. Not even VSee servers, or others, have the decryption key.

Chen says that last year in the United States, there were more than 900 million doctor visits. He estimates that half those would have been suitable for handling remotely, especially for things like follow-ups, discussion of lab results, psychiatric visits, and certain types of counseling. The genetic counseling department at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center was quick to hop on board this telemedicine trend. Kate Loranger, a licensed genetic counselor at UCSF explains: "We're dealing with hereditary cancers in our clinic. Individuals are sometimes quite sick and going through treatment close to home, so really it allows us to save them a long car ride. That really is something that our patients really appreciate."

A feature of VSee that Loranger and her colleagues especially like is the ability to share documents with the patient on the other end of the chat. "We can easily send them the family tree that we're looking at and we can actually use an electronic pen to circle areas of the pedigree that we're focusing in on. We can also share their test results very easily, so we can read through it together and also interpret it together, and that really makes it a workable system, when we can be sure we're looking at the same thing."

VSee charges $9 per user per month for the document-sharing feature and also takes a usage fee from the participating doctor. A patient would pay her health-care provider directly for the telemedicine visit. Because of the relatively low barrier to entry for this type of health care, VSee is starting to roll out its technology in developing countries around the world. Chen says thousands of people in rural Haiti have connected with their physicians over VSee and that pilot programs are popping up elsewhere. VSee has been effective in part because of the reduced strain on resources. VSee's "bandwidth efficiency in developing countries really matters because you don't have the same network infrastructure that you have here," adds Chen.