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History of Telemedicine

The now and future of healthcare.

When did telemedicine start? From house calls to urgent care clinics, on-demand healthcare has always been a hot commodity. After all, nobody schedules strep throat or a twisted ankle ahead of time. The modern patient expects 24/7 access to their doctor, and physicians today are able to use telemedicine to monetize remote assistance. Technologies like Facetime and Skype seem brand new, but actually, telemedicine has been around much longer than most people think–from the first half of the 20th century.

See our visual guide to the history of telemedicine

Early Fantasies in Telemedicine History

In the early 1900s, radio revolutionized communication. Inspired by radio’s sudden prominence in every field from entertainment to national defense, it wasn’t long before innovators started imagining how doctors could attend to patients over the radio. A Radio News Magazine from 1924 features an illustration of a doctor attending to a patient via video call, under the headline “The Radio Doctor–Maybe!” At that point, this was only an editor’s vision of the future technology, but 90 years later these dreams would be realized.

Read: Dr. Glen McCracken, Why Telemedicine Could Be a Game-Changer for Your Practice

Technology at Work

So, when did telehealth really start? For some context, in 1940s Pennsylvania, radiology images were sent 24 miles between two townships via telephone line in the world’s first example of an electronic medical record transfer. A Canadian doctor built upon this technology in the 1950s, constructing a teleradiology system that was used in and around Montreal. As these practices became more widespread, so did motion pictures, and with the advent of modern film technology came serious plans for video medicine. The first people to use video communication for medical purposes were clinicians at the University of Nebraska. In 1959, the university established a two-way television setup to transmit information to medical students across campus, and five years later linked with a state hospital to perform video consultations.

Today, telehealth technology serves many rural communities without local physician access, and this was the basis behind the University of Nebraska’s research. In the early 1960s, telemedicine appeared in urban communities as well, touching down in the world of emergency medicine. The University of Miami School of Medicine partnered with the local fire department in 1967 to transmit electrocardiographic rhythms over radio to Jackson Memorial Hospital in rescue situations. Remote medicine had officially hit the streets.

The Evolution of Telemedicine

Telemedicine became popular in rural areas, where populations with limited healthcare access could now reach specialists from afar. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Public Health Department, NASA, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department all invested time and money for research in telemedicine.

One of the most successful of these government projects was the partnership between the Indian Health Services and NASA. The project was called Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care (STARPAHC), and provided both Native Americans on the Papago Reservation in Arizona and astronauts in orbit with access to medical care. Microwave technology transmitted X-ray photographs, electrocardiographs and other medical information to and from the Public Health Service hospital.

Innovative projects like STARPAHC spurred research in the field of medical engineering, leading to quick growth for telemedicine. Over the following decades, research in the field became popular in universities, medical centers and research companies, with more creative, ambitious projects following STARPAHC’s lead.

Read: How Telemedicine Solves the Costly Problem of No-Shows

Now and Later

The telehealth devices in use today resemble earlier telemedicine equipment, but modern health tech is smaller in size and greater in scope of features. Wearables like fitness wristbands and heart rate monitors are an early example of mobile health tools that track patients’ vital data in real time. Smart glasses and smart watches are already popular amongst physicians, and will soon be used to relieve doctors of tedious paperwork. Stanford medical students Pelu Tran and Ian Shakil co-founded Augmedix, a digital health startup that uses Google Glass to automatically transcribe medical records during a patient exam. Concepts like this, which may seem fantastical to physicians now, will someday be commonplace – just like how modern telemedicine seemed an outlandish idea in 1924.

Luckily for the telemedicine industry, there’s still a lot of unexplored territory. Both private and government-owned research firms invest heavily in telemedicine, so the technology develops almost faster than physicians can keep up. What will telemedicine look like in 2020? We can only imagine. Request a demo for further insight.

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