Going to the doctor can be inconvenient at times — it may mean missing work and sitting in a room full of sick people, among other things. Now, telemedicine may change all that.
At its most basic, telemedicine — sometimes called telehealth — is any healthcare communication that takes place by electronic means, be it a fax, email or transferred image. Today's new technologies have transformed telemedicine. Telemedicine has grown into a powerful tool that can take modern health care to the most remote areas of the planet or right into your living room.
"The time for telemedicine, or the use of videoconferencing to overcome disparities in health care, has finally arrived," said Kourosh Parsapour, MD, MBA, founder and CEO of 5plus, a provider of digital health efficiencies in physical rehabilitation. "Given the Affordable Care Act's 'triple aim,' telemedicine is the perfect tool to provide quality health care to those that may otherwise [have] not been able to receive the necessary medical attention they require."
Telemedicine is the same health care, using the same people, products and services, you would receive from their physical location. According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), telemedicine is not a separate medical specialty and is often part of a larger healthcare system. Even billing for services is usually the same as an in-person consultation.
How do they do it?
Technology has changed a lot since telemedicine began almost 40 years ago, allowing patients to receive high quality health care and their doctors to consult with labs and specialists faster than ever before.
Here are a few of the more common ways new technology assists telemedicine:
- Interconnected healthcare systems link clinics through high-speed internet lines so that smaller or more rural clinics can access and share the resources available to larger hospital systems and clinics.
- E-health and web-based patient service sites deliver consultations and other services over the internet, often in patients' homes.
- Monitoring center links can be set up to for cardiac, pulmonary or fetal monitoring as well as related services right in patients' homes.
- Video services allow doctors from almost anywhere to consult directly with patients and provide an easy-to-use resource that can be forwarded to a specialist if needed.
Why use telemedicine?
Telemedicine continues to grow as technology improves and patients ask for more healthcare options. Here are a few reasons you might consider asking about telemedicine:
- Convenience is the name of the telemedicine game. Being able to video chat, email or call your doctor about common prescription updates or to diagnose simple health issues like a cold saves you time. It also keeps you out of a waiting room full of sick people.
- Saving money can be nice, and according to the ATA, some doctors may charge less for a telemedicine consultation that they would for a visit to their waiting room. It also may reduce your travel costs if you live in a rural area. For many patients who can’t afford to leave work, telemedicine provides an alternative when their condition isn’t contagious.
- Faster, easier second opinions are available when you can forward x-rays and test results directly to another physician. This convenience provides a peace of mind that used to require a large commitment of time in your busy schedule.
- Privacy is a serious concern, and according to the ATA, telemedicine complies with the same privacy rules as being in the doctor’s office, as outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
According to Dr. Parsapour, "Common barriers to accessible health care may be geographic or financial limitations, which are further exaggerated by the shortage of healthcare providers and the rapidly increasing population of aging baby-boomers and those with chronic ailments. Telemedicine technology now allows delivery of real-time care to situations or locations that would previously have been underserved."
Telemedicine has a lot going for it, and as technology improves, the existing programs will continue to expand even as new ones are created. Telemedicine has its difficulties, however; electronic glitches can make connections unreliable, some doctors remain resistant to the change, and there is the simple fact that your doctor can’t touch you, making a physical exam impossible.
Ask your healthcare provider if telemedicine is an option for you and how it might be used for your specific needs. Even if your telemedicine experience is limited to emailing a quick question to your doctor, telemedicine may make your life just a little bit easier and less hectic.