The Art of Telemedicine

Telemedicine, defined as the use of technologies—including telephones—to remotely diagnose, monitor and treat patients, has actually been practiced for decades. Beginning in the 1960s when the space program began, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was able to chart their astronauts’ vital statistics thanks to specially designed monitors attached to their spacesuits.With the advent of satellite technology, NASA also pioneered several earthbound projects that allowed them, for instance, to deliver health care to the Papago Indian Reservation in Arizona. In 1974, the agency first used high-quality videotape during a health exam conducted by a nurse but monitored by a doctor via close-circuit television. Fast forward four decades, and Telemedicine is fast becoming one of the most accurate and cost-effective ways to conduct doctor to patient evaluations.While it cannot accomplish everything that a patient may ultimately need in terms of health care, it has become a very viable alternative to in office visits, saving a patient valuable time while allowing a doctor the time to do what he or she does best – practice the art of medicine.

The practice of Telemedicine differs from a standard office visit in that it makes innovative use of advanced technologies to communicate more directly with patients.

Thanks to the digitization of many diagnostic devices and the increasing popularity of mobile health and tracking devices, like Fitbit, Fuel Jawbone and now Apple iWatch, anyone can keep better track of their own health and vitality. Then with Telemedicine they can reach out and share that data with their healthcare provider who can be just about anywhere.

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Telemedicine is getting noticed

An article recently appeared on discussing my favorite topic: Telemedicine. In it, the American College of Physicians, known as the ACP, acknowledged that telemedicine can “increase access to care and patient satisfaction while delivering care that is more efficient and less costly than in-person encounters.”

The ACP went on to say that telemedicine might be a threat to regular office-based visits, from a bottom-line standpoint. They think that direct-to-patient telemedicine should only be used once in a while as an alternative to visiting a physician, rather than as a replacement for. I don’t agree with that, and it’s not simply because I’m a practitioner of telemedicine. I think it’s the way of the future. I believe that it makes seeing a doctor easier for most people because to see a doctor simply means looking into a computer screen and camera. There’s no travel involved; no hassle in getting there. You’re already where you need to be.

Even with their reticence, the ACP “supports the ongoing commitment of federal funds to support the broadband infrastructure needed to support telehealth activities.”

There were just two comments to the article, one from a man named Roger Downey who said this: “For those wondering what the important distinction is, telemedicine involves a remote physician seeing a patient via realtime videoconference at a location recognized for reimbursement as an “originating site” by Medicare, Medicaid and/or state law. Typically, there is a patient “presenter” with the patient following the doctor’s instructions to perform an exam with integrated medical devices such as a stethoscope, otoscope, exam camera for closeups of the throat, eyes, and skin, ultrasound probe, EKG, spirometer and vital signs monitor. The images, audio and data are shared live with the physician, but at the end of the patient session they can be preserved in the patient’s electronic medical record for continuity of care.”

Here’s what I said in response: “There are individual docs such as myself who practice telemedicine from other than an “originating site” with their own patients who see this as an extraordinary benefit for access. Importantly, the patients also benefit from more and faster attention to acute illness and closer monitoring of chronic illness. And, in my case I will when necessary even send a trained assistant to their home with those same devices you mention. I do appreciate the ACP for their cautious approach while the experience of the D2C telehealth companies is assessed.”

I feel confident that telemedicine will make the practice of health care and the opportunity for quality care available for all, and that it will ultimately benefit the patient by providing easier access to a primary care physician.