Technology has made the world smaller. And now, it’s making the medical industry smaller. Today, doctors are linking up with patients by phone, email, and webcam to practice Telemedicine.
It’s not a new trend: we’ve been seeing a gradual shift towards this over the past few decades. However, as communications technology continues to expand, Telemedicine is changing from a futuristic technology into something that changes our lives on a daily basis.
What Should You Know About Telemedicine
With that in mind, here are 5 things you need to know about how telemedicine is transforming (and has already transformed) the health care industry:
Telemedicine is a Broad Term that Covers Everything from Wearables to Robot Surgeries
When someone says telemedicine, you might envision a doctor talking to a patient over webcam, or even a surgeon performing surgery using a remote robotic device – two things that occur every day.
But telemedicine is a far broader field than that: telemedicine also covers situations where patients are using “smart” biometric devices to send vital data to doctors without specifically coming in for a doctor’s visit.
You know how you used to have to visit the doctor to get your blood pressure or heart rate taken? Thanks to smart technology – like wearables with biometric sensors – that’s no longer a necessity.
It’s Particularly Useful in Remote Areas
What happens when someone needs surgery at McMurdo Base in Antarctica? Well, if the doctors on-site can’t solve the problem, then they need to consult with colleagues remotely. In this situation, establishing a telemedicine connection can literally save someone’s life.
Telemedicine is proving most valuable in remote parts of the world, where hospitals may be a full day’s drive away – or non-existent.
Doctors Without Borders, for example, relays questions from its physicians in Niger, South Sudan, and other remote areas of the world to its network of 280 experts around the world. These experts discuss the findings, then relay the information back via the internet.
Telemedicine is Creating “Hospitals Without Beds”
The Wall Street Journal tells a story of one hospital in the woods outside St. Louis. That hospital is a “hospital without beds”. It’s a Virtual Care Center in Mercy’s health care system network.
That hospital has one goal: provide remote support for intensive-care units, emergency rooms, and other programs in 38 smaller hospitals across America.
Many of these hospitals can’t afford to have physicians on-site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Obviously, emergencies can happen 24/7 – so the solution is to consult with remote doctors and nurses who can assist the staff on-site.
That hospital has a “TeleICU” section where a critical-care doctor sits at a huge video monitor. That monitor continuously collects data on all ICU patients in the Mercy medical system. The doctor analyzes this data to spot signs of imminent emergencies.
Any time a patient is thought to be in trouble, that remote physician can use a camera – placed in the patient’s room – to zoom in. The camera is of a high-enough resolution that the doctor can read the tiny print on the IV bag. So there’s no need to make a physical visit to the patient’s room.
Said one doctor, “It’s almost like being at the bedside—I can’t shock a patient [restart his heart with electrical paddles], but I can give an order to the nurses there.”
It’s Leading to Better Patient Care (But Not Always)
The most important thing to note about telemedicine is that it appears to be leading to better patient care.
Mercy, which is leading the way for telemedicine, claims that ICUs monitored by Mercy’s remote specialists have observed a 35% decrease in the average length of stay along with 30% fewer deaths than anticipated.
In real terms, Mercy explains that’s 1000 people across the network who got to go home instead of dying at a Mercy hospital.
It’s not all good news about telemedicine, however. To test the effectiveness of remote patient care, researchers in a study in JAMA Dermatology last month posed as patients with skin problems and sought help from 16 telemedicine sites. The results were described as “unsettling” and were widely inaccurate.
Of the 62 encounters between patients and remote doctors, fewer than one-third of the encounters disclosed the doctor’s credentials to the patient or let patients choose. And, only 32% discussed the potential side effects of prescribed medications.
Making things worse is that misdiagnoses were common because doctors failed to ask basic follow-up questions.
Key Stats Behind Telemedicine
The Wall Street Journal, the American Telemedicine Association, and a study by JAMA Dermatology are responsible for all the stats listed below:
— In 2015, there were 1 million virtual doctor visits across America. In 2016, that number is projected to hit 1.2 million.
— 72% of hospitals and 52% of physician groups in America have telemedicine programs
— 48% of large employers offered telemedicine benefits in 2015, while 74% offered the same benefits in 2016
— More than 15 million Americans received remote care in 2015. That number is expected to grow by 30% by the end of 2016.
— The American Telemedicine Association launched an accreditation program to start standardizing and implementing safe practices across the industry. Hospitals offering remote care may need to undergo an accreditation process in the near future.
— 32 states so far have passed “parity” laws. These laws require insurers to cover remote doctors’ visits if the doctor provided the same standard of care as would have been delivered (and covered) in person.
— Medicare, the federal health plan for elderly Americans, currently only covers a small number of telemedicine services, although that may change in the future. Thus far, Medicare only covers telemedicine services for those in rural areas. And, services must be performed in a hospital or clinic.
Final Thoughts On Telemedicine
Ultimately, the goal of telemedicine is to reduce health care costs in every corner of the industry while providing superior patient care. Telemedicine doctors’ visits are already widely available online for as little as $45, compared to $100 or more for an in-person appointment.
Stay tuned for more information on telemedicine as the technology continues to grow in the future.