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Telemedicine: One way to keep high blood pressure at bay, suggest heart experts

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Patients who took their own blood pressure at home and sent the results to doctors for advice and health tips saw their condition improve more than other blood pressure patients who went for regular, in-person check-ups.

Telemedicine may be an important tool in the effort to treat the estimated 67 million Americans with high blood pressure, many of whom live in low-income communities like South L.A., according to a new study.

Telemedicine is a way of providing care remotely – whether it's through a provider videoconferencing with a patient or a patient submitting medical information or photos to a provider to get diagnosed.

That doesn't work for all patients or cases, of course. But in the instances it does work, it can be considerably cheaper and give health care access to people who normally wouldn't have it. It's been used in rural communities for a long time because there, the nearest doctor's office can be hours away – but recently providers have begun using telemedicine to extend care to people living in underserved urban centers. With the swell in care demand expected to come with the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and insurance exchange program next year, overworked providers in low-income areas need all the advantages they can get.

Now, research that will be presented at the American College of Cardiology's 62nd Annual Scientific Session on Sunday says patients whose blood pressure was monitored via telemedicine saw a significant drop in their blood pressure. 

The study

All of the study's participants had high blood pressure and were residents of a low-income, urban neighborhood in Philadelphia. Half of them received the usual care, with in-person visits to a health provider. 

The other half used telemedicine. They made an initial visit to their provider, who helped them craft a plan for lowering their blood pressure, and then didn't communicate with each other for six months (unless the patient initiated contact). Patients would use a blood pressure cuff at home every day, record the results and submit them along with a few other vitals. Reports were submitted twice a week and in response, patients would receive tips and information tailored to them that was meant to help them manage their condition.

Being in any system of care is valuable for a patient, which is why researchers found that nearly all of the study participants saw reductions in their blood pressure. But among all non-diabetic patients, the ones who used telemedicine saw considerably larger drops in their blood pressure than those who were following a normal regimen of care, with a flesh-and-blood doctor.

Because so many people are unaware of their high blood pressure – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 14 million people fit that bill – the study's authors said telemedicine's value lies in its tendency to improve patients' awareness of their condition and inspire them to take charge of their own care.

The study will be published in the American Heart Journal after it's presented on Sunday.

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