"Occasionally, my 81-year-old father has his pacemaker checked. He doesn’t wait in a doctor’s office. He doesn’t even have to leave the house. He simply makes a phone call. Through sophisticated, innovative technology, he dials a number, holds the phone receiver to his chest (Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure of the details of how this process works.) The resulting information is processed and forwarded to his cardiologist and health care team. My father – who grew up on a farm in the Appalachian Mountains —admitted to me that the entire process reminded him of something straight from the pages of the “Flash Gordon” comics he read as a kid.
But the world of Flash Gordon is not limited to the tales of science fiction. My father’s experience is far from unique. Not only are cardiology patients across the country benefiting from this type of technology, but telemedicine is steadily on the rise. Skype medical consultations are more and more common. After all, if you can download your favorite song from iTunes, why not download your recent MRI? Patients already use the internet to set physician appointments and gather health information, so aren’t virtual doctor visits just a natural extension of this process?
Telemedicine--also called e-Health, remote medicine, and telehealth--- has grown extensively.
According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), more than half of U.S. hospitals use some form of telemedicine. In addition, there are 200 telemedicine networks in the U.S., with 3,500 service sites. In 2011, more than 300,000 remote consultations were delivered by the Veterans Health Administration.
Private insurers are also covering telemedicine services. The District of Columbia and 22 states require that insurance covers telehealth services at the same rate as in-person services,
and other insurers will cover at least some telehealth services, the ATA stated.
Telemedicine is big business
According to the New York Times, the interactive telemedicine business has grown by almost 10 percent a year, representing more than $500 million in revenue. Other advantages of telemedicine are:
- Telemedicine enables rural hospitals to have access to consultations from physicians at major medical centers.
- Through the use of portable scanning devices and electronic stethoscopes, telemedicine can be used to diagnose patients in hard-to-reach areas such as research stations, military outposts or oil rigs.(You can read writer Milt Freudenheim’s fascinating account of how telemedicine helped a patient who was working on an oil rig in the South China sea.)
- Doctors contemplating entering into the telemedicine venture should be aware of the policies and recommendation of their local medical board. (A link to information on the NC Medical Board's policy can be found here.)
What can we learn from the rise of telemedicine?
- Consumers are digitally savvy. Speaking to a physician, friend or relative through programs such as Skype are becoming the new normal. Consumers are used to conducting all types of transactions online—and many are making these transactions form smartphones or digital devices.
More information on telemedicine can be found on the ATA’s website.