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Put simply, telemedicine is the practice of using communications technology to link healthcare providers to their patients and each other over great distances. Telemedicine manifests in a number of ways, all of them centered around data transfer and communications. If your practice consults patients over the phone, for example, you’re already practicing telemedicine! What other types of telemedicine are out there? Let’s explore.
Real-time telemedicine (also called live telemedicine) makes it easy to do a doctor-patient visit anytime, anywhere. Live telemedicine includes any two-way communications (including video conferencing and phone consultations) that let providers and patients communicate in real-time. Assessments of medical history, basic visual examinations, psychiatric evaluations, and even ophthalmic tests can all be done via real-time telemedicine.
Another type of telemedicine is called remote patient monitoring. Remote patient monitoring allows healthcare providers to monitor patients’ health data from a far, usually while the patient is at their own home. RPM can significantly cut down on the time a patient needs to spend in the hospital, instead letting them recover under monitoring at home.
Remote patient monitoring is especially effective for chronic conditions, such as heart disease to diabetes to asthma. Technology that allows patients to monitor themselves for these conditions has existed for many years, but today, vital health data can be shared with doctors and other healthcare professionals remotely. Cutting-edge equipment can transmit basic medical data to doctors automatically, allowing them to provide a much better level of care and keep an eye out for the earliest signs of trouble.
Store-and-forward telemedicine makes patient records and medical data more accessible across long distances. All sorts of useful medical data (e.g. medical imaging, test results, bio-signals) can be acquired and transmitted across vast distances. The biggest advantage of this type of telemedicine is that it doesn’t require the simultaneous attention of the delivering and receiving parties. A field technician, caregiver, or specialist can collect the necessary data, upload it, and leave it for detailed inspection by another provider at a later time.
No appointment is necessary, so this type of asynchronous platform is used by many patient-focused telemedicine platforms to solve minor medical issues. Pathology, radiology, dermatology, and many other specialized medical fields rely on this form of telemedicine on a daily basis. Many systems exist to help integrate this type of information into a single cohesive record for an individual patient. Though not all electronic health record systems are interoperable, widespread telemedicine use helps push the industry to make better platforms that can cooperate and communicate.
Telemedicine can improve communications between the members of a medical team. A primary physician can get greater access to a wide range of specialists without requiring any travel. Secure video conferencing platforms make it easy for different professionals to collaborate productively on a given case, with or without the presence of the patient in the communications loop. The ability to share patient information quickly and completely improves the overall level of assistance that specialists can provide. In some hospitals and clinics, video consultations are performed with special examination cameras that allow remote specialists to get an up-close look at a patient’s condition.
Radiology and other diagnostic specialties deserve special attention in any discussion of telemedicine. Modern technology has vastly accelerated the rate at which x-rays, CT scans, and other important images are distributed from one medical professional to another. Broadband transmission speeds allow these images to be sent from their point of capture to the physicians and specialists who need them almost instantaneously. This has allowed healthcare professionals to centralize both the acquisition and analysis of such data despite geographic challenges. For example, a regional hospital may produce x-rays on-site, transmit them to a cardiologist a thousand miles away, and get a useful analysis back within hours.
Depending on the economic resources available and the needs of the medical professionals involved, there are many different ways to distribute medical data. In the United States, many hospitals and clinics use dedicated networks to share information. These can be routed over the Internet or use dedicated data lines. There are hundreds of such networks operating in the US today, linking thousands of different healthcare facilities.
Thanks to telemedicine, healthcare professionals have multiple ways to interact with patients in their own homes. Web-based services, such as patient portals, allow providers to share basic information and answer simple questions. More robust connections can let professionals gather data from medical equipment in the home such as pacemakers, fetal heart monitors, and pulmonary systems. Patient portals can be used to recommend health-focused mobile apps or educational materials, such as articles and videos. Patients may even connect with physicians in virtual visits, face-to-face, from their own homes.
Telemedicine is an extremely fertile field that has dramatically altered the face of healthcare in a relatively short amount of time. By improving the breadth and frequency of communication and information sharing between patients and medical professionals, it’s dramatically improved the overall levels of healthcare service available to individuals around the world. In the future, refinements in the field will create a global network of doctors and other health professionals who can engage and educate their patients to a truly unprecedented degree.