In a general sense, telemedicine is an amazing idea. Think of the application—access to a medical professional any time you need it in the privacy of your own home. In practice, however, reality has proven disruptive to any progress in making telemedicine an everyday component of modern healthcare.
The fact is that most people don’t understand telemedicine—or trust it. According to a March 2016 survey conducted by HealthMine, a Dallas-based medical research company, the majority of the 500 insured survey respondents indicated that they didn’t understand telemedicine and 39 percent said they hadn’t even heard of it. Of the respondents who said they weren’t using telemedicine, 14 percent said they didn’t trust a virtual provider to make an accurate diagnosis and 42 percent said they would simply prefer receiving care in a more traditional setting.
With stats like that, telemedicine obviously won’t be replacing traditional practices any time soon, but that doesn’t mean it has no future within the current healthcare model. In truth, telemedicine has the potential to fill a real need and reduce overall healthcare costs by replacing certain follow-ups and monitoring appointments.
Not every appointment has to be conducted in person. Initial evaluations and procedural/testing visits are definitely best conducted face-to-face, but what about the simple visits that require little more than a conversation and some basic tests? Are the time and costs associated with a formal visit strictly necessary in those instances, or is there a better way?
Realistic Applications for Telemedicine
Below is a list of realistic applications for telemedicine. Decide for yourself: Is there a place for telemedicine in modern healthcare?
Follow-up visits for wellness or simple sick checks. Obviously major illnesses that require heavier monitoring would require more frequent in-person visits, but most of healthcare is a small cold or a minor infection. Initial evaluations often require face-to-face examination, but following up to make sure a prescribed treatment worked shouldn’t require an appointment and especially if the illness was minor and was quickly resolved.
Chronic condition monitoring. For illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, frequent physician monitoring is essential. However, when a medicine has proven effective and a patient is confidently managing his/her illness, in-person visits are not strictly necessary. Telemedicine would allow for regular communication between patient and physician to ensure effective monitoring of the patient’s condition while reducing the time and money spent with constant in-person consultations. Less severe chronic conditions still need regular monitoring, but contact through telemedicine could provide an easy way to address that need in a convenient and cost effective way for both patients and healthcare professionals.
Building a strong healthcare community. As one physician, Mia Finkelston of Leonardtown, MD, found, a growing practice can strain a physician’s ability to be readily available to all patient needs—and this strain can result in a loss of patient confidence. When she had to sell her smaller family care practice to a larger organization, her ability to keep her former tight-knit community of patients together was severely tested. She later found that telemedicine might have been a good option for keeping up with her patients, if they’d been open to the idea. Unfortunately, they weren’t. However, the opportunity is still available for many small and larger town practices. With the right education and some demonstrations of the capabilities of telemedicine, physicians have a real opportunity to be available to patients in a way that in-person only meetings prevent. Via video conferencing software and a secure server—and there are tons of programs for that these days—physicians can evaluate small issues and keep in touch with patients. Especially for family care practices, that sense of care and belonging is invaluable for establishing lifelong patient relationships.
Non-severe evaluations and immediate access, particularly for children and newborns. For new mothers in particular, tiny issues can be terrifying. A cough, a rash, a stuffy nose, or a slight irritation somewhere—every mom has panicked at some point or another over her child’s health. And often, these issues are minor, but how does a mother address them when an internet search is more likely to terrify her than address the problem. Telemedicine would be a boon in these cases, allowing for mothers to discuss the problem and, with the right software, even show the problem through video. While video conferencing isn’t ideal for all diagnoses, the right questions and the ability to listen to and view the child can often help doctors discern whether or not a visit is truly needed or if the issue can be treated at home—in comfort and without the exposure to germ-filled ER’s.
Combined with digital monitoring devices. For men and women with heart conditions or blood pressure issues (among others), telemedicine combined with digital monitoring devices could also provide a peace of mind and remove the need to constantly visit physicians. Some conditions require patients to visit their doctors on a weekly basis, for blood pressure tests and heart rate checks. New technology, however, could eliminate the need for some of those visits and allow doctors to have even more complete monitoring capabilities for at-risk patients. Certain digital monitoring devices could be used to monitor heart rates on a 24 hour-a-day basis, while home-based blood pressure machines could let patients test their blood pressure twice a day. Combined with a daily or weekly phone call or video conferencing, these chronic or potentially severe conditions can be monitored with very little disruption to daily life or bank accounts.
Certainly telemedicine is not the answer to every problem. Specialists, for instance, may find that telemedicine doesn’t offer quite as many benefits as it would for a family care practitioner. Even so, the potential applications, simply as a back-up option for small issues—along with the right education for patients—could create a confidence boost in patients that doctors would find beneficial in the long run.
To that end, doctors may want to drop dragging their feet with regard to telemedicine. Considering the applications listed above, practices will need pick up the pace to stay competitive with modern medicine—before some other progress-minded professionals beats them to it (look how fast retail clinics popped up and stole the show). Never forget: It’s better to be the leader of progress than the one lagging behind.