The old way: You develop a mysterious rash. You call your doctor's office for an appointment, leave work early, sit in traffic, and then sit some more in the waiting room. After examining your rash, your doctor decides you need to see a dermatologist. You obtain a referral, make another appointment, rearrange your schedule, sit in more traffic, and finally arrive at the dermatologist's office for diagnosis and treatment.
The new way: In the exam room, your doctor photographs your rash with a digital camera and sends it, along with any examination findings, via computer to the dermatologist. The dermatologist reviews the information, asks additional questions if necessary, makes a diagnosis, and recommends a course of treatment. Alternately, your doctor may establish a video link to the specialist, allowing you to receive an immediate consultation, diagnosis, and treatment plan.
The use of telecommunication lines to transmit medical information, also known as telemedicine, is one of the fastest growing and most quickly evolving US industries.
Benefits for Patients
Not long ago, telemedicine was used mainly to help the exchange of information between doctors and medical institutions. As the technology improves and becomes more accessible, new avenues of diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment are opening up.
Here are the highlights of how people are benefiting from telemedicine:
- Patients in rural and underserved communities gain access to quality healthcare.
- Providing care to patients who travel abroad and may not speak the native language.
- Technological advances allow emergency responders to transmit better information from emergency vehicles to emergency room personnel.
- Video links between medical institutions and nursing homes or patients' homes provide caregivers and patients with immediate access to doctors.
- Monitoring devices allow homebound patients to transmit their heart rates, blood pressure, glucose levels, and other important data from their homes to their doctor.
- Correctional facilities can use telemedicine to avoid transporting a prisoner to a doctor's office.
Understanding the Risks
On the Internet, you can get prescriptions filled and even visit virtual doctors' offices using telemedicine. But standards and guidelines for this type of care are still being developed. This is an international issue that is still very much in the buyer beware category.
Patients who use the Internet to find telemedicine care should be careful. They should thoroughly research any providers and share the information they find with their doctor before acting on it. You should also ask questions regarding the confidentiality of the content you share over the Internet.
Depending on your symptoms, a doctor may still need to visually observe you to diagnose your condition. This is not always possible, even with videoconferencing technology. For now, doctor's visits—no matter how inconvenient—are still a more established method of treatment than Internet medicine.
Telemedicine is changing the way medical care is delivered. Patients are embracing it, the cost savings are increasing, and its efficacy has been proven. However, doctors are still somewhat reluctant.
Conferences and seminars addressing telemedicine are offered, and some medical schools cover the subject in classes. As insurance companies see documented efficiencies, they too may increasingly cover these services.
As time goes on and the financial, legal, regulatory, and ethical wrinkles facing telemedicine are ironed out, it may open up access to medical care and improve efficiency.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 11/2013 -
- Update Date: 11/19/2013 -