Do you live in a location where the nearest hospital is 30+ miles away? Do you live a busy, hectic lifestyle where normal doctor hours are not conducive to your schedule? Are you, or someone you know, incapable of physically going to see a doctor on a regular basis? Answering yes to any of these questions explains the growth behind telemedicine. For those unfamiliar with the term, telemedicine is “the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology”. In other words, telemedicine lessens the need for in-person doctor visits.
Some may be surprised to know the concept of telemedicine is not new. The idea was adopted in the early 1900’s following Alexander Graham Bell’s patent of the telephone, which ultimately paved the way for remote communication. It was in the 1950s/1960s when the first uses of telemedicine to transmit medical records occurred (i.e. video, images, etc.). It’s also been a necessary practice for NASA, as it became pivotal to be able to monitor the health of space explorers who wouldn’t have immediate access to a hospital and the services that come with one. The same goes for correctional facilities and remote scientific stations like in Antarctica.
Aside from NASA and arctic explorers, there are many who benefit from the use of telemedicine. Hospitals in rural areas can connect with larger hospitals and medical facilities that can provide the services that some small, local hospitals are unable to provide. The elderly or physically handicapped have access to medical professionals without having to make the journey to a hospital. Someone who suffers from agoraphobia or has a mental health disorder has the comfort of knowing they can get the care they need without it being debilitating.
The inception of the Affordable Care Act prompted a larger discussion into how telemedicine can/should expand. With a larger number of people in the U.S. receiving health insurance, it warrants a way for patients to be treated that is both efficient and economical. Of course, it’s much easier said than done. There are a few limitations telemedicine must work around before it can grow to its full potential. Healthcare laws, privacy protection regulations, and costs are areas that need to be thought about before making any aggressive moves.
While telemedicine has many positive attributes, and lessens the need for in-person doctor visits, it does have some setbacks. Training would be required for healthcare professionals and hospital staff. A patient who decides to go the telemedicine route may have to consult with a new physician because they’re normal Primary Care Physician does not have the technology to use telemedicine, which can result in inadequate patient record sharing. Additionally, patients may rely on this technology too heavily, thus making them less willing to physically visit a hospital regardless of the severity of their condition.
So, what’s next? The integration of wearable devices and telemedicine seems to be on the horizon but we’re still not quite there. For physicians, they’d get real-time stats on their patients and can diagnose and advise accordingly. Also, a physician would not have to rely on the information their patient tells them. Patients are not as forthcoming with their habits or medication regimens to appease their doctor. The marrying of wearables and telemedicine technology would eliminate the guessing game and, if there is a way to not interfere with privacy laws, could potentially be a game changer.