In a world that seems incredibly decentralized, yet another industry is starting to break away from the conventional brick and mortar paradigm. Telemedicine is the practice of medicine across digital platforms such as internet, email, or webcam. And while there have been rumblings about it for years, it seems it is finally time for telemedicine to step out into the spotlight.
While there are a number of ways that telemedicine can be beneficial, the most obvious is the lack of logistical barriers. That means patients who are stuck at home due to mobility or health concerns can still have access to basic healthcare. Likewise, rural patients have greater access to healthcare when telemedicine is an option.
Finally, telemedicine is changing the way doctors approach disaster situations. Large scale catastrophes often stretch the resources of emergency organizations. Such has been the case with Hurricane Harvey.
“For every adult that comes in, there will be about three children,” Scott Summerall explained to PBS News.
Summerall is a spokesperson for Dallas Based pediatric hospital, Children’s Health, which has been assisting with the disaster relief. The imbalance of patients being admitted has strained the hospital’s resources.
“We have doctors for adults available at the shelter 24 hours a day, but we don’t have as many pediatric specialists, especially at night.”
In order to overcome this shortage, doctors at the hospital have taken to using telemedicine to treat patients with low-risk, chronic medical conditions.
Asthma, for instance, is a common problem in such situations; while 80% of Americans are exposed to dust mites, a common trigger for asthmatics, on a daily basis, natural disasters increase the amount of triggers like smoke, mold, and dust in the air, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
But while asthma is a problem for its suffers, disaster triage often means that these common ailments must wait until more seriously injured or sick individuals can be treated. Telemedicine allows these secondary or tertiary patients to have access to medicine more quickly.
But telemedicine is not only limited to disaster situations. In Florida, three nursing facilities have teamed up in an effort to find a way to reduce the costs of patients suffering from urgent but non-life threatening conditions.
More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, many of whom live full time in specialized care facilities where they are under 24-hour supervision. Transferring a patient with Alzheimer’s to a hospital for treatment, therefore, requires a great deal of effort and funding. Since many individuals with Alzheimer’s are on Medicare and Medicaid, these trips place a large burden on the system. In fact, in 2016 Medicare and Medicaid paid a total of $117 billion and $30 billion respectively for Alzheimer’s care, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
And while it might be one thing if those transferred served a vital medical purpose, but more often than not the treatment isn’t necessarily necessary. John Whitman, executive director of TRECS Institute (Targeting Revolutionary Elder Care Solutions), explained in a press release that these costs can be drastically reduced without affecting quality of care.
“Studies show that approximately 60 [percent to] 70 percent of all nursing home transfers to the hospital are unnecessary…Sending a vulnerable senior to the hospital only increases their exposure to a wide range of other proven, adverse effects.”
Using telemedicine, these care facilities will be able to address non-life-threatening issues like urinary incontinence, which affects roughly 25 million Americans, many of them seniors, without incurring unnecessary costs and exposing their patients to potential exposure to dangerous illnesses.
Yet geriatric medicine is just one field benefiting from telemedicine. Even cosmetic surgeons can avail themselves of the benefits of telemedicine.
“Telemedicine allows us to perform virtual consultations for patients who do not live near our offices and schedule consultations off hours for those in different time zones,” President of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery said, according to a 2015 press release.
A patient who undergoes Follicular Unit Extraction, a common procedure to combat baldness, can usually expect to recover in a few days, and up to five days for the redness to settle. But if the patient has traveled from out of town for the surgery, making a second trip back for a check up can be prohibitive.
Telemedicine allows patients and doctors the flexibility to schedule appointments even across large distances.
While it is unclear how telemedicine will be implemented in the future, it is obvious that it will have a profound effect on the way medicine is practiced in the decades ahead. As Cleveland Clinic Neurosurgeon and medical director of distance health said to the Wall Street Journal:
“This will open up a world of relationships across a spectrum of health-care providers that we haven’t seen to date.”