In my previous blog post, I discussed the use of technology in the form of text messaging as a tool to ensure patient compliance and improve outcomes in vulnerable populations. The introduction of simple and widely available technological tools can have a massive impact in ensuring healthcare for all. In this article, I’ll discuss “telemedicine” (also referred to as “telehealth”) – a general term used to describe the use of technology to work with patients remotely.
What is telemedicine and why is it important?
“Telemedicine” literally translates from Greek and Latin to “distance healing.” Technological advances have given us the ability to remove or, at least, dilute the effect of distance in the delivery of healthcare services to patients.
Innovations in telemedicine promise to alter the landscape of healthcare. As society ages, the economic burden of chronic disease continues to increase. It is projected that by 2050, chronic diseases will account for 78% of all medical expenses, even as the provider base continues to decline.
Finding cost-effective ways that break away from the fee-for-service model have become imperative in an increasingly unfavorable and lop-sided economic environment. Researchers at Wayne State University believe that chronic disease self-management models using telemedicine can bridge the developing economic chasm in healthcare.
Telemedicine can also make a significant impact in altering the healthcare business models that serve vulnerable populations in remote areas that do not have access to quality health care. This definition can be expanded to non-remote areas, where patients find themselves under-served by the healthcare system. Through patient education and empowerment, the continuum of healthcare can be cost-effectively sustained.
Categories of telemedicine
Current implementations of telemedicine fall into three main categories:
- Store-and-Forward. Information is shared electronically among practitioners and with patients, reducing the need for in-person appointments. For patients without proper access of care, this method serves as a bridge to specialist advice that they would never otherwise have received.
- Remote Monitoring. Technology devices are used that help a patient self-monitor critical health parameters allowing for more frequent, or even continuous, assessment of health conditions associated with chronic diseases. This method can often help in preventing the onset of major health events.
- Real-Time Interactive Services. Patients can access medical care using technology tools that include computer or phone-based teleconferencing. These include face-to-face appointments with nurses and doctors.
Telemedicine and the future of healthcare for the vulnerable
As we navigate the next few decades of changing demographics, I believe telemedicine will play an increasingly important role in serving the health needs of vulnerable populations. Telemedicine provides a possible avenue for us to serve masses of people, rescuing them from an already deeply stressed healthcare system.
However, despite its viability as a solution, telemedicine is not easy to implement and requires steady support from public and private funding sources and institutional buy-in. Changes are necessary at the federal and state policy levels to ensure that telemedicine can become widely and systematically available.