Why Telemedicine Makes So Much Sense

Cisco's TelePresence product line offers a wide array of telemedicine terminals and diagnostic tools.
Cisco’s TelePresence product line offers a wide array of telemedicine terminals and diagnostic tools.

Tired of wasting time in a doctor’s waiting room or the hospital ER? Ever wonder why the doctor didn’t get to see you until 2:45 p.m. even though you had a 2 p.m. appointment. You were expected to be there on time; why wasn’t the doctor?

It turns out that you’re not alone, which helps to explain the explosive recent growth of telemedicine, which uses telecommunications technology to bring doctor and patient together. As fewer doctors and hospitals attempt to serve an ever-growing demand for their services, many Americans — and people abroad as well — are turning to telemedicine to help close, or at least narrow, this gap between supply and demand.

Few Like Long Waits

This probably comes as no surprise in this increasingly wired era when people everywhere are insisting on instant gratification and have little or no patience for delay or long waits. They are beginning to lose their patience with long waits for medical care and are looking for alternatives that promise more rapid response to their needs.

In a recent blog posting at the website of U.S. News & World Report Health, Vik Bakhru, M.D., chief operating officer of First Opinion, a provider of telemedicine services, cited an interesting report from Vitals.com. In 2015, according to Vitals.com, the average wait time to see a doctor was 19 minutes and 16 seconds. Although that was down a full minute from 2014 wait times, it is still longer than most health consumers want to wait.

Vitals.com attributes the drop in average wait time for doctors to an increase in alternative care facilities, the growing availability of physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and a rise in concierge medicine. As more and more patients turn to telemedicine options, it is likely that the average wait time will drop even more sharply.

Many Visits Unnecessary

In making his case for even broader adoption of telemedicine, Dr. Bakhru suggests that many of the 1 billion-plus visits to U.S. doctors’ offices could be avoided altogether. ¨As a physician, I see many patients whose questions could be addressed using smartphone technology,¨ he says. ¨A quick conversation via video chat with a physician could be sufficient in getting the information needed to address these health questions.¨

As one example of unnecessary doctor’s visits that could be better handled via telemedicine, Dr. Bakhru cites a trip to the physician’s office to get an opinion as to whether a skin irritation is minor or a sign of a more serious underlying condition. In such a scenario, says the doctor, ¨having the ability to text message a doctor or text a photo of the affected area to a physician to get an informed opinion on next steps could be a major time saver — not to mention that it gives the patient peace of mind, faster.¨

In the United Kingdom, National Health Service patients can access medical services through touch-screen Internet kiosks such as the one pictured above.
In the United Kingdom, National Health Service patients can access medical services through touch-screen Internet kiosks such as the one pictured above.

If such relatively minor visits to the doctor could be handled via telemedicine, says Dr. Bakhru, ¨the whole industry will begin to see positive effects as less time and money (are) wasted in the waiting room.¨

Perils of Self-Diagnosis

Patient frustration with protracted waits to see the doctor can sometimes lead to less reliable means of dealing with suspected illness. As one example of such misguided practices, Dr. Bakhru cites the growing tendency to self-diagnose medical conditions based on information gleaned from Internet research. ¨But medical experts are called so for a reason, as they are the only ones knowledgeable and qualified [enough] to make health assessments and recommendations.¨

This is where telemedicine can make a real difference, says Dr. Bakhru, serving as ¨a bridge between efficiency and efficacy, between cost-effectiveness and quality of care.¨

Americans Embrace Telemedicine

Almost two-thirds of American adults see video consultations with a doctor as a viable alternative to in-person trips to the doctor’s office or visits to the hospital emergency room. This increasing willingness of U.S. health consumers to adopt the technologies offered by telemedicine has helped to fuel rapid growth in this burgeoning new segment of the medical field.

American Well, a major player in the telehealth business, in January 2015 published ¨Telehealth Index: 2015 Consumer Survey,¨ an overview of consumer sentiments about telemedicine as revealed in a survey conducted jointly with Harris Poll in December 2014.

The survey reveals a number of areas in which health consumers would prefer to interact with medical professionals via telemedicine as opposed to an in-person visit to the doctor’s office. Some of these include:

  • Prescriptions Refills: Today many doctors insist upon periodic in-person visits before they will refill longstanding prescriptions, which is understandable because no physician wants his patients continuing to take a drug that is no longer needed or safe. Not surprisingly, patients hate such visits, so much so that roughly 60 percent of the respondents to the 2015 Telehealth Index survey said they would much prefer to handle such visits via telemedicine.
  • Birth Control: Among women between the ages of 18 and 34, 42 percent would much prefer to discuss contraceptive options with a doctor via telemedicine rather than make a visit to the doctor’s office. Among students, the percentage preferring telemedicine visits climbs to 44
A doctor at a remote location can use a personal computer to link into telemedicine networks around the world.
A doctor at a remote location can use a personal computer to link into telemedicine networks around the world.
  • Antibiotics: Bacterial infections don’t usually fit conveniently into a 9-to-5 schedule and can strike in the middle of the night or on a weekend when the doctor’s office isn’t even open. In desperation, many patients end up going to the nearest emergency room to get some medication to fight the infection. To end such costly and time-consuming visits, often in the middle of the night, 41 percent of the survey’s respondents said they would like to be able to use telemedicine to get the help they need in such situations.
  • Medication Management for Chronic Conditions: A large number of patients with chronic health conditions must visit the doctor’s office on a regular basis to have their vitals assessed and to have relevant prescriptions renewed. For some patients, these kinds of visits can be difficult and painful. One such respondent to the Telehealth Index survey noted: ¨I am partially disabled and have difficulty getting into and out of the family car which makes doctor’s visits a painful experience.” If just some of these periodic visits could be handled via telemedicine, it would cut costs and help to improve the quality of life for patients who are partially disabled.

Video Consultations Preferred

The Telehealth Index survey also explored various telemedicine modalities to see which ones patients felt would result in the most accurate diagnosis. Pollsters asked respondents to select between email, telephone, and high-definition videoconferencing. Not surprisingly, 63 percent of the respondents said they would opt for high-def video consultations with their doctor. Thirty percent selected telephone, and 7 percent picked email.

One survey respondent who had recently experienced a video consultation with her doctor for a post-surgical follow-up recounted her experience. ¨“The video part of the appointment played a big role for me. I could see the doctor’s face clearly on the screen, and it felt normal speaking to him over video because I’m so used to doing it with friends and family. When [the doctor] asked to see the scar and observe movement in my toes, all I had to do was lift my foot up to my laptop camera.”

Photo credits: Cisco Pics, Kiosk 4 BusinessMUSC Center for Global Health

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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