Telemedicine refers to the provision of remote clinical services, via real-time two-way communication between the patient and the healthcare provider, using electronic audio and visual means.
The convenience of telemedicine
In primary care, telemedicine is usually in the form of phone calls, where the patient seeks the doctor’s advice about non-emergency medical problems which do not require the doctor to see the patient. Telemedicine does not replace face-to-face consultation when it is needed but instead complements it.
The real role of telemedicine at present lies in the convenience it offers to patients and practitioners by obviating the necessity for a physical visit to get medical advice or treatment. It is also cost-effective in comparison to the process of waiting to see a doctor or other healthcare provider.
Telemedicine can also help select urgent calls after a doctor’s office is closed. It is of immense value in the follow-up of patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.
These individuals who are not experiencing any immediate medical problem, but require help with dosage adjustments, lifestyle regimens, prescription refills, or even just access to group support, can benefit from the convenience of telemedicine.
An added convenience is that telemedicine consultations can be arranged to follow all needed laboratory investigations or vital sign monitoring.
In fact, telemedicine has been practiced by doctors for a long time, though not under this name. While this may be true, the use of broadband internet technology has made both audio and video calls affordable and available to a wider spectrum of society, making this a feasible alternative to the conventional system.
Important terms in telemedicine
Telemedicine is practiced from a hub, which is the site from where the distant practitioner delivers service through a telecommunications system.
At first, specialized videoconferencing equipment was necessary, with customized diagnostic peripherals, such as stethoscopes or EKG monitors attached to the system.
The health provider who was with the patient would use the diagnostic tools under the guidance of the distant physician, to provide the required patient data.
Today, telemedicine usually employs a desktop computer, with a special video card. The computer’s advantage is that it can store data securely. High-speed telephone lines or satellite connections allow interaction between both locations.
On the other hand, the patient is at the originating or spoke site, and receives the service via a telecommunications service, often with the mediation of telepresence.
Telemedicine has several definitions, but the broadest one covers the use of services outside the traditional real-time interactive telecommunication health service.
This includes services such as store-and-forward, where camera images are stored and forwarded, while the consultation is completed via a telecommunication system. Though these are not real-time or interactive, they are still useful for treatment delivery. Remote monitoring is another aspect of telemedicine.
Benefits of telemedicine
Telemedicine requires no significant outlay other than a web camera and a secure patient portal that connects the doctor to a secured electronic medical record database online. This type of system ensures the safety of the private information discussed during a telemedicine call, while also providing the treating clinician with the ability to store necessary medical records.
In addition to these required devices, the physician will also require a medical license that has been provided by the same state where the patient receives will receive their prescription.
Those who support the use of telemedicine point to its convenience, reduced waiting times, expanded access to high-quality medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as its lower cost as compared to most other medical consultations.
In addition, the ready availability of patient records online has the potential to make patient prescriptions more reliable and accurate.
By providing second opinions more easily and faster, telemedicine can also make the patient and physician experience better. Finally, it produces improved health outcomes, which should be the primary goal of all health services.
Many studies that have drawn direct comparisons between telemedicine and other approaches to patient management have shown a clear benefit associated with the use of telemedicine.
The benefit was greatest in the areas of teleradiology, telemental health, telecardiology (echocardiography in particular), home telecare, and teledermatology. Many researchers agree, however, on the limited evidence at present on the benefits or cost-effectiveness of telemedicine, which requires further studies.