Over recent years, the service known as telemedicine has grown exponentially and it is now very much an accepted part of modern-day medicine. For some folk, it’s probably crept up on you and perhaps taken you by surprise; for others, telemedicine may have been part of your life for some time now. But what is the history of telemedicine?

Let’s look at the definition of telemedicine first up. Succinctly put, it’s the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients via telecommunication technology. So we know that telemedicine delivers healthcare services remotely via telecommunications. But what are these services exactly, and what is the purpose? They include assessments, consultations, scans, results, etc. and allow healthcare professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients without actually seeing them in person.

Telecommunication, also known as telecom, simply means the exchange of information by electronic means. These electronic means – or information transmitting technologies – include telephones, fiber optics, satellites, microwave communications, radio, TV, the internet, and telegraphs.

Quite a lot to digest and understand if you’re not familiar with telemedicine! So let’s now take a look at the full history of telemedicine that has led to these fascinating developments.

Divan Medical - Stethoscope

The history of telemedicine has encompassed many advancements in technology, communications and medicine.

In the early 1900s, a little invention known as the radio was gaining prominence in many different fields, ranging from the obvious one – entertainment – to the perhaps less self-evident one of national defense. In 1924, a Radio News magazine published a sketch showing a doctor speaking with a patient via a video call, under the headline “The Radio Doctor – Maybe!” An incredible vision from a journalist about future technology, which would take another 90 years to be realized!

The world’s first use of electronic transfer for medical purposes took place in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Radiology images were sent 24 miles from one town to another via the telephone line. A Canadian doctor took this a step further in the 1950s, building what was known as a teleradiology system, which was used in and around Montreal.

With the advent of motion pictures and the advancement of film technology, it wasn’t long before people started talking about introducing video medicine. It came about in 1959, at the University of Nebraska, where a two-way television was set up so that information could be transmitted to medical students around the campus. A short five years later, they actually linked with a hospital and carried out video consultations.

As you might imagine, telemedicine was initially considered important mainly for rural communities without any direct access to local medics. But by the early 1960s, it was being used in urban communities also, and to great effect. In 1967, in a pioneering move, The University of Miami School of Medicine partnered with their local fire department and set up a system where they could transmit electrocardiographic rhythms via radio to the Jackson Memorial Hospital so that they were able to give and receive advice during rescue situations. This innovation paved the way for further research into the possibilities of telemedicine.

One lot of professionals who were surprisingly able to benefit from these advances in telemedicine were astronauts! Yep – the technology even reached outer space as far back as the 60s/70s! X-rays, ECGs, and other medical information could be transmitted to a hospital for analysis, meaning the astronauts had access to medical care while in orbit.

Projects like this spawned an even bigger interest in telemedicine, resulting in further research and development over the following decades.

Divan Medical - woman using phone

These days, many medical services are just a phone call, message or teleconference away.

It’s interesting to note that the world and history of telemedicine encompasses a large spectrum. On the obvious, and least technological, end of this spectrum is the familiar telephone consultation between a patient and a medic. You could include here also the basic radio communication between emergency medical professionals and hospitals. At the far end of the spectrum, then, you have amazing things such as telesurgery, where a surgeon is able to guide robotic instruments in the performance of surgery at a remote site. Sounds pretty mind-blowing, doesn’t it? It’s still largely experimental at this stage, but surely not that far off becoming commonplace.

In between these two extremes of telemedicine, you have a bundle of other functions, such as video conferencing for diagnostic purposes and a whole array of data transmission possibilities between medical professionals and hospitals.

Two things propelling the ongoing research and advancement of telemedicine are concerns about access to health care and advice in remote locations, and the ever-increasing cost of medicine. Currently, many of our medical centers are looking at reduced revenues, coupled with exclusion from locally managed care networks, so they are very keen to explore the multi-faceted world of telemedicine to see how it might reduce their costs at the same time as advancing their services.

Telemedicine is becoming widely accepted by patients and professionals alike. Today, more than half of all U.S. hospitals have a telemedicine program, and research shows that most patients are happy to use it. Insurance companies, too, are coming on board with the concept. Over the last few years, more companies have started to offer telemedicine as an option on health plans, and people are beginning to use this service in their droves.

So although telemedicine appears to be a relatively new concept, it has actually been around for nearly 100 years now, albeit in a very basic form initially. There’s a way to go with it yet, as the potential is huge, but it’s obvious that telemedicine already has many uses, is here to stay, and could be the answer to many a problem.