The ‘tele’ prefix means ‘at a distance,’ which is apropos for describing life these days. Our increased use of the telephone and television may be leaving us with desires to teleport elsewhere – perhaps closer to friends, family or a tropical paradise.
But when ‘tele’ is matched with ‘medicine,’ we get what the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as “healing from a distance.” Imagine that.
Telemedicine is simply a way for healthcare providers to interact with patients using methods other than in-person, face-to-face meetings. Telemedicine may sound high-tech, but its inception can be traced back to early developments in telecommunications. During the Civil War, the telegraph was used to report injuries and request medical supplies for the front lines. Radio consultations throughout the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s benefited patients aboard ships at sea or stationed on remote islands. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the Public Health Department, NASA, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department all invested money into telemedicine research. Many projects emerged from the research, one of which used microwave technology in the exchange of medical services to remote Native American reservations and astronauts in space.
As of 2019, the global telemedicine market was estimated to be a $45 billion dollar industry. Now, more than ever, innovative ways to improve the way we communicate from separate locations are imperative. This includes how we talk to family members, friends, bosses and coworkers. And, of course, our doctors. Having healthcare needs taken care of remotely is growing in appeal and widespread acceptance.
Where one may think removing the ‘bedside’ in ‘bedside manner’ would result in increased disconnect and impersonality, it’s quite the opposite. For Dr. Mukarram Razvi of Blacksburg, more ways to connect to a patient means it’s actually more personal. “It allows me to see patients how, when and where I want. I’ve been doing a lot of phone calls, video calls, emails and texts. I enjoy having the personal relationship with the patient and that they have increased access to me, even for a small question.”
Efficiency, convenience and safety are inarguably the leading benefits of telemedicine. For doctors, being able to communicate with patients instantaneously is significant. For patients, laborious visits to the doctor’s office, where lengthy wait times and check-in processes bog down time off work are seldom required.
Telemedicine is regulated on a state level, much like provider licensure, legislating acts such as when telemedicine is appropriate (i.e. is an in-person visit needed first?) and when and how a provider can prescribe medication. On top of that, the federal government legislates privacy laws, insurance portability (Health Insurance Portability and Accountably Act) and record-keeping.
A healthcare practice will typically use third-party companies like Teladoc Health, mWELL, Heal or MDLIVE which provide platforms and apps that directly connect patients to doctors. As long as the patient has a smart phone, a tablet or a desktop or laptop computer, the software is accessible, and the virtual relationship can begin. Generally speaking, the interfaces are intuitive and easy to adopt, but a bit of a learning curve should be expected. As more and more people choose to access healthcare virtually, the programs will continue to improve, and any technology hiccups will smooth out.
Looking ahead, Dr. Razvi believes that patients will start to understand and embrace that they can do more of the exam themselves, like taking their own blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels, temperature and respiratory rate. They can have this information on hand before engaging with a physician.
Telemedicine is most applicable for conditions like a cough, a sore throat, rash, minor eye problems, prescription refills or pain in a certain area of the body. The balance between knowing when to come in and when a video call is sufficient is still a critical decision point and analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, we are our own most important healthcare advocates. We are empowered to act on what’s in our health and well-being’s best interest. The technology just helps us get there quicker and easier. “The more often patients use telemedicine, the more it will become familiar. They will gain autonomy and confidence,” Dr. Razvi states.
Carmel Winter of Pembroke recently had surgery to repair a ruptured ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. Her twice-a-week physical therapy appointments take place via VidyoConnect, and her surgeon follow-ups are virtual, eliminating a two-hour drive. “It puts you more in control,” she states. “I can decide whether or not I need to be seen.”
Telemedicine is not a novel concept for these 2020 times, but virtual house-calls are rapidly becoming a household name. Having more lines of communication to our healthcare providers is a good thing. And if you’ve had a particularly positive experience using telemedicine practices recently, be sure to spread the word and tele-friend! Ha!
Nancy S. Moseley is a Blacksburg resident who once shuddered at the idea of video chatting, but now embraces the ability to see the faces of long-distance friends.