It’s perhaps difficult to get our heads around this fact, but it’s true to say that telemedicine has been with us for nearly a hundred years now. We probably think of telemedicine in terms of video and Skype calls, or the emailing of scans and X-rays – things that could surely only have been available in the last decade or two! In fact, though, one of the earliest forms of telemedicine occurred in the 1940s, when radiology images were transported from one town to another via a telephone line. This was the start of it, but telemedicine has sure come a long way since those days!
The use of telemedicine today has spread rapidly and is now part of the fabric of hospital services, specialty departments, home health agencies, physician offices, and indeed patients’ workplaces and homes. Telemedicine encompasses everything from a simple telephone consultation or Skype call to digital scans and even the remote monitoring of intensive care units. According to the American Telemedicine Association, more than 20 million Americans will have access to a remote health care service by the end of 2017.
Let’s look at exactly why Americans are embracing telemedicine in droves and how telemedicine could benefit you.
If you live in a rural part of the States, then simply traveling to see a physician or for a hospital appointment can not only be a huge challenge, but can also take up most of your day. Imagine how much time, energy, and money you would save if you were able to speak with your specialist remotely. It wouldn’t work in all cases, of course, but where you don’t actually need a physical examination it could be hugely beneficial.
Another group of people benefiting from the growing availability of telemedicine is the elderly. The number of elderly Americans is increasing year on year and, of course, as you get older, you are generally less mobile and need more care. Also, older citizens might find it more difficult to travel for every appointment, so to be able to speak with a health professional from the comfort of your own home would be a great benefit. Many senior care home facilities are now accessing telemedicine via videoconferencing. Patients can be viewed and observed by a physician in situ (a much more comfortable and amenable experience for them), a diagnosis can be made, and treatments or prescriptions prescribed. If all of this is done remotely it saves time and money as well as the problems associated with getting elderly patients from A to B. Add to those benefits a less harrowing undertaking for the patient and the fact that this type of care results in fewer hospital admissions, and you have an all-round winner when it comes to telemedicine and elderly care patients.
A further telling reason why the U.S. is embracing telemedicine is that there is currently a shortage of physicians in the States. This shortage is expected to worsen over the next few years. The increase of telemedicine can aid this problem simply because it saves time. Physicians can deal with more patients if they are seeing them remotely; appointments aren’t wasted through “no-shows”; consultation and diagnosis tends to be quicker remotely; scans and X-rays can be shared among experts without the need to actually meet in person and discuss the patient. The more consultations, treatments, and diagnoses of less serious complaints that can be done via telemedicine, the more time the professionals have to treat serious illnesses and conditions. We all benefit from that, right?
Imagine, too, if a physician wanted to take on a new partner. He or she might need to carry out renovations or building works in order to add a new treatment room to accommodate this new partner. There’s an immediate expense, which would only in time be passed onto you, the patient. But if this physician could simply employ a new partner to work remotely with patients, they would only need a desk, a phone, and a laptop. Job done immediately and with little cost! Physicians from the same practice could work rotating schedules, thereby making someone available during out-of-work hours. Again, this allows the practice to treat more patients and gives the patients greater flexibility in accessing help and advice. Something that’s surely of interest to everyone – not least employers, as it means less appointments and consultations during working hours.
Health insurers have perhaps been dragging their heels a little in embracing telemedicine culture, but more and more private insurers are now starting to cover telehealth services. Many states are also coming on board by introducing laws and guidelines. The extent of insurers’ cover varies greatly at the moment and some employ geographical restrictions, so there’s a way to go yet, but we are heading in the right direction. The more health insurance companies that offer cover for telemedicine services, the more the services will be promoted and therefore used by patients. Most insurers can see the advantage for their rural members and some of the more far-sighted companies can see that telemedicine cover might attract businesses who want to offer a modern-day convenience as part of their employee package. Insurers are also hoping that telemedicine will mean less of their members ending up in the more expensive health care scenarios. This is all good news for the consumer. Less costs for our health insurer will mean lower premiums for us.
As you can see, there are many compelling reasons why the U.S. is embracing telemedicine and many ways that telemedicine can be of benefit to you, the consumer. As technology improves, these benefits will surely become even more apparent to us all.