A patient in Switzerland has a skin ailment but, living at the base of the remote Alps, is unable to visit the nearest town with a doctor. He logged into VideoMedicine’s telemedicine app and, within minutes, saw a licensed dermatologist. He was diagnosed with a skin lesion and given a prescription, which he filled locally. The patient received the same diagnosis and treatment as he would have after heading to see a doctor and waiting in an office—without traveling a mile or killing time in a waiting room. The technology that made this possible has made its way to the United States, with 15 million Americans accessing remote healthcare last year.
While the “telemedicine” services of the past referred to medicine conducted over the landline telephone, the internet makes telemedicine a much more individualized and informative part of healthcare. Doctors and patients now use apps, wireless networks, smartphones, satellites, and web technology to meet in consultation. Even Doctors Without Borders uses telemedicine to allow its doctors in the field to confer with specialists back home. But these conversations are just 1 example of what telemedicine can bring to healthcare.
What Can Telemedicine be Used for?
With all this change to the technology has come a linguistic change, too, in the term “telehealth.” It’s broader than “telemedicine,” the more focused technology-based meetings between doctors and patients. Telehealth is any medium that allows physicians and those they care for to share information between one another or between sites for treatment, education, and more. These technologies may include teleconferencing, instant messaging, storing and sharing images or recordings, monitoring patients remotely, robot-assisted services, and mobile technology (or mHealth), which uses mobile devices to treat patients or monitor them.
Devices have been invented to monitor vital signs, such as blood pressure, and transmit results to healthcare providers. Butler said an app is in development that would use the patient’s phone camera as a retinal scanner (no dilation needed). Most of the time, though, and for the purposes of this article, when people talk about telemedicine, they’re discussing its videoconferencing capability and accessories supporting the consultation.
“You can never get a ride when you need one, just like you can’t get a doctor’s appointment when you need one. Often, a patient can’t get in to see a doctor for up to 3 weeks,” VideoMedicine founder and owner Charles Butler told HealthMarkets. “Now, when you need a ride and can’t find one, there’s an app for that, and I thought that people needed that kind of service in the medical industry.”
While telemedicine is forging new frontiers, it’s important that users are aware of the limitations.
What Are Telemedicine’s Pros and Cons?
Like anything else, telemedicine has its pros and cons—situations it’s well suited for and times when it doesn’t work so well. You may be wondering, “How can telemedicine benefit healthcare?” Let’s take a look at which medical scenarios take advantage of telehealth benefits and when you should see a doctor in person.
- Pro: Telemedicine can bring doctors into contact with patients who live in remote or underserved areas that don’t have enough providers.
- Pro: Telemedicine can reduce medical expenses for both providers and patients via lower travel costs, pooled resources, and patient care that’s more efficiently and effectively managed. Each telemedicine visit costs about $45.
- Pro: Adding telemedicine to a medical care program tends to maintain or improve the patient’s level of care.
- Pro: Patients who use telemedicine are more satisfied with the care they receive, perhaps due to more access to healthcare, lower stress associated with the visit, and improved convenience.
- Pro: People with chronic conditions have wider access to follow-up visits that won’t disrupt their everyday schedules with travel or waiting time.
- Pro: “Studies have shown that there is little difference between the care given in person and the care given via telemedicine, and medical malpractice-related claims appear to substantiate that data,” according to Risk Management Magazine. However, the author notes, it is early in the game to dismiss the possibility of challenges outright. As technology develops and popularity picks up, new scenarios may arise.
- Con: As with any changing technology, regulations lag a bit behind new developments. While regulatory bodies and licensing are in place, states may not have enacted state-specific standards and requirements. In states that have regulations, these laws tend to vary, or the licensing process for telehealth may be less in-depth than for in-person medical practice. Consult the American Telemedicine Association for accredited sites, and avoid those with something to sell.
- Con: Prescribing medication during a telehealth appointment can be a little dicey. Lack of face-to-face interaction with the patient raises concerns of safety and liability. In a telemedicine appointment, a patient may not provide as extensive a health history, the doctor may not assess the patient thoroughly enough to prescribe, or the patient-provider relationship may be lacking. Some states may require a doctor and patient to have an existing relationship or a face-to-face physical exam before the doctor can prescribe medicine remotely.
Whether it seems like telemedicine can help your current situation or you’re someone just imagining its future uses, HealthMarkets plans often come with complimentary telemedicine visits. Find an agent near you today to talk about which plan is best for your lifestyle, or call (800) 304-3414 to get started with one of our professionals. Their assistance is free, and it can make a big change in your healthcare.