Telemedicine, defined by the American Telemedicine Association as ¨the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology,¨ is growing in popularity, according to a late 2014 survey.
In a survey taken at the annual conference of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine in October 2014, two-thirds of the health care practitioners who responded said they are either currently providing services via telemedicine or plan to offer such services within the near future. These are impressive numbers, particularly when one considers that the survey also showed that only 19 percent of the providers polled had a mechanism in place to be paid for telemedicine services.
Concept Isn’t Really New
While to many it may seem that telemedicine is a relatively new concept, its roots can be traced back more than half a century to the early years of space exploration. In an article posted at ElectronicDesign.com, writer Roger Allan points out that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ¨built telemedicine technology into early spacecraft and spacesuits to monitor astronauts’ physiological parameters.¨
However, while the seeds for the telemedicine movement were sown decades ago, it is only in recent years that the technology necessary to fully facilitate telemedicine has become available to virtually all Americans.
Growth Certain to Continue
As the previously noted problems with reimbursement indicate, the growth of telemedicine in some ways has outpaced the construction of an administrative infrastructure that is adequate to deal with it. Nevertheless, it seems very much as though telemedicine is here to stay. Here are just a few of the reasons healthcare industry observers expect telemedicine to continue growing for the foreseeable future.
- Easy Access to Health Care: The ready availability of online meeting and videoconferencing software, such as GoToMeeting, Skype, and WebEx, offers rural patients improved access to medical opinions from doctors located virtually anywhere in the world. Software analyst Shahid Shah, author of the Healthcare IT Guy blog, notes that ¨a simple $30 to $50 per month account on the physician side, with almost no direct cost for the patient, is an excellent way to engage with patients.” Such consultations, says Shah, can be arranged in a variety of different ways depending on the needs and preferences of both patients and providers. For example, multiple patients could be brought into a remote office from which they could interact with a physician or specialist via videoconferencing software, or such interactions could be conducted from a patient’s home linked remotely to a medical professional’s office.
- Remote Monitoring of Telemedical Devices: The technologies associated with telemedicine give health professionals an easy way to keep tabs on patients who have implanted medical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators. Patients no longer have to make the trip into the doctor’s office to have the medical data collected by these devices downloaded onto the physician’s computer. It can be done over telephone lines in a matter of a few minutes, saving all parties considerable time and money.
- No More Waiting Rooms: For patients served remotely by means of telemedicine technology, this means an end to the days of spending time in a crowded waiting room with other patients, some of whom may be sick with communicable bacterial or viral illnesses. Nor will you be risking the health of others if you are sick with such an illness. An article posted at 33rdSquare.com cites HealthLinkNow.com as an example of an online healthcare consultancy that is actually up and working. It has a team of physicians, psychiatrists, substance abuse counselors, and licensed clinical social workers. It is focused on providing mental health resources and is actively recruiting other healthcare providers, including psychologists, nurses, and therapists.
- Cost Efficiencies: The skyrocketing cost of health care is one of the most compelling rationales for expanding telemedicine networks to reach more patients efficiently. According to the American Telemedicine Association, telemedicine ¨has been shown to reduce the cost of health care and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays.¨
- Access to Special Expertise: Millions of Americans live in sparsely populated corners of the country without convenient access to doctors of any kind, much less specialists. A robust telemedicine network would provide an opportunity to experts to consult on health care issues facing those in rural America.
- Improved Quality of Health Care: According to ATA, multiple studies have shown that the level of care offered through telemedicine networks is at least equal to, if not better, than that available through traditional face-to-face consultations. And in some specialties, such as mental health and critical care, ¨telemedicine delivers a superior product, with greater outcomes and patient satisfaction.¨
- More Mobile Options: The surge in availability of high-tech communications gear has put powerful tools within the reach of almost all Americans, few of whom are without access to a smart phone or tablet these days. This gives the telemedicine providers even more options with which to interact with patients. For providers who are equally dependent on their mobile devices, it increases the ways they can access the health records of patients and make updates as necessary. Although designed primarily for personal caregivers, Independa’s Caregiver Dashboard — available in both mobile and web platforms — provides an easy way for family and friends to keep tabs on the well-being of those they care for.
- Maximization of Available Resources: The demand for health care services is skyrocketing as the Affordable Care Act extends health insurance to millions of Americans who were previously uninsured. This comes at a time when the supply of doctors available to treat these patients is growing at a much lower rate. Telemedicine offers a way for health care professionals to reach more patients in less time and at lower cost than is possible on a traditional consultation basis.
- Patient Satisfaction: Noting that the biggest beneficiary of the telemedicine movement is the patient, the ATA points out that health care consumers are driving telemedicine’s expansion by increasing their demand for its services. For patients, telemedicine reduces travel time and related stresses, while offering them access to providers and special services that weren’t previously within their reach.
Cisco Surveys Consumers
While face-to-face consultations with doctors aren’t going away anytime soon, a growing number of people worldwide have signaled their willingness to embrace the new technologies associated with telemedicine. In March 2013, Cisco presented the results of a survey sampling the views of consumers and health care decision makers on telemedicine and its various technologies. Here are some of the survey’s findings relative to virtual vs. in-person interaction with health care providers:
- Roughly 75 percent of all respondents said they have no problem with the idea of communicating with health professionals using technology instead of seeing them in person.
- Three-quarters of consumers in China, Mexico, and Russia indicated they would be comfortable using virtual technology to consult with a specialist.
- More than 60 percent of consumers in Germany, Japan, and the United States said they are comfortable with the idea of being treated by a specialist using virtual technology.
- The overwhelming majority of patients and citizens surveyed indicated that they would be willing to compromise on anything, including cost, convenience, and travel, to receive treatment from a health care provider they perceived as a leader in his field.
Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.
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