DEEPAK CHANDRASEKAR has been wondering why his right eye has been so red recently, which is what brought him to see the doctor today. Internist Seema Sangwan examines his eye and inquires about whether he also has an itchy throat. "Look up, please," she asks her patient, peering closely at the eye, finally determining that his symptoms are consistent with allergies. She prescribes some antihistamine eyedrops and recommends scheduling a follow-up appointment. It's a pretty routine medical exam. Except that Sangwan isn't in the same room with her patient—she appears in front of him on a giant home-theater-esque display.
Thanks to a new Cisco telemedicine initiative called HealthPresence, Chandrasekar was diagnosed remotely with the aid of videoconferencing and high-tech medical equipment that transmitted images, blood-pressure readings, and heart-rate data to Sangwan. Xenia Khesin, the on-site nurse, focused a high-resolution video camera on Chandrasekar's eye and instantly a magnified image of his eye appeared on a smaller monitor next to the main video display in their location. Sangwan saw the same image on her computer screen, which was how she was able to diagnose Chandrasekar's problem. Patient and doctor were conversing face-to-face, though they weren't in the same room. The entire episode took no more than 10 minutes, and Cisco hopes it is the future of health care.
Cisco launched its HealthPresence initiative in 2006. Executives realized teleconferencing could potentially solve a growing problem in the health-care field: Many Americans live in areas where doctors, particularly specialists, are far away. So the company devised a network of exam stations that would supply specialized health care to patients regardless of their location. The HealthPresence system includes not only virtual-chat capabilities but also medical devices such as pulse oximeters, blood-pressure cuffs, and ear-nose-throat scopes that transmit patient information electronically to doctors anywhere around the globe, who are also equipped with Cisco's technology. Exam kiosks can be installed in all kinds of places, from 18-wheeler mobile clinics to office parks. The company already has 33 kiosks up and running, including the one at the Cisco campus in San Jose, which is where Cisco consultant Chandrasekar was able to have his eye checked.
Sangwan thinks users enjoy the participatory aspects of their virtual doctor visit—getting to see an on-screen close-up of an inflamed eye, for example, or to listen to a chest noise recorded by the telephonic stethoscope. "People get amazed," she says. "They say, 'Yes, it does look red,' or 'Yes, I hear a whistling.' " Sangwan cannot use the system to diagnose conditions that call for palpation, such as appendicitis, but she says these situations arise rarely.
Demographic trends suggest Cisco has timed its entry into the telehealth realm perfectly. The ratio of health-care staff to U.S. citizens is already about 40% lower than ideal, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan, and it's going to get worse; health-staffing needs are projected to triple over the next quarter-century. Telehealth systems may be our best shot at extending the reach of the specialized providers we do have. Other companies are beginning to get in on the action: GE Healthcare and Intel joined forces this year in a telehealth venture called Care Innovations, and HP has teamed up with Lifebot to develop a telehealth system for emergency care. But Cisco maintains an edge deployment-wise. Its HealthPresence system is already being used by a variety of health-care providers, including a Tennessee not-for-profit that houses its kiosk in a truck. The truck drives around rural parts of the state where specialists are scarce, and heart patients are able to see their cardiologists on a monthly basis without ever leaving their driveways. "The more people are exposed to this, the more they're going to become comfortable," says Gloria Calderon, vice president of clinic operations at California-based Molina Healthcare.
A variety of logistical challenges remain, such as persuading government programs like Medicare to reimburse doctors for telehealth visits, convincing HMOs that they should jump on the bandwagon, and—the biggest one—getting patients truly comfortable with seeing their doctors on a video screen. The Cisco team, convinced that these are just temporary obstacles, remains committed to its goal of installing the system widely. "Jails, corporate campuses," says Kathy English, Cisco's director of global health-care marketing, "you could have patients go to a Walgreens or CVS to see a physician." Will HealthPresence kiosks someday be as common as Starbucks? It's possible—as long as patients decide the technology is seamless enough that they can forget it even exists.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.