The Increasing Popularity of Telemedicine with New and Upcoming Technologies

Alice Ferng
Published on Mar 13, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

Alice Ferng, Medical Scholar at Osmosis, MD-PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson.

What is Telemedicine?

Imagine your annual checkup from the privacy of your own home by simply using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled devices that allow for measurements of your vital signs (blood pressure, weight, etc.) to be taken, recorded and transmitted to your family physician. Now imagine moving to a different city, state, or country, and putting on a pair of techy glasses at a nearby hospital facility that gives you the illusion that your family physician is right in front of you, doing a checkup on you—putting on a blood pressure cuff or listening to your heart and lungs, even though you know they are not physically there with you.

These are just a few of the scenarios that are possible now, or that may be possible in the future, with the advancement of modern technology. If you are looking to get started with telemedicine, here are the minimum requirements: having two providers who have the patient’s best interest in mind, who you can trust in good faith to use HIPAA compliant protocols, access to internet that can support video streaming, and some platform from which to communicate. There are not defined software or hardware required for telemedicine, which creates an unlimited number of possibilities for how telemedicine can be practiced where availability of resources is not a great limiting factor. The setup can vary from a dedicated platform from one of many telemedicine technology companies, to using your front facing camera on your mobile phone.

Google Glass with the ability to Skype or Google Hangout, Oculus Rift with its full immersion in an alternate reality, mobile phones with front-facing cameras, and wearable mobile phone watches—these are just some of the technologies arriving on the market that may help encourage the growth and development of “telemedicine.”

Physicians today often use Skype or FaceTime to converse with other providers or to provide medical expertise remotely to patients. To get more nitty gritty details, I contacted an expert, Dr. George Hadeed, in this field who acted as the Trauma Telemedicine Coordinator at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, AZ, and is currently a telemedicine consultant for other groups.

The transcript of our brief interview is as follows:

1. How would you define telemedicine?

Dr. H: Telemedicine is the practice of medicine that is conducted from a distance, using telecommunications and computer technologies. This can be done in real time or stored and forwarded for later review.

2. What kinds of new and upcoming technologies do you think will play a role in telemedicine, and in what ways will these technologies improve current capabilities?

Dr. H: The biggest hindrance to telemedicine is the availability of networks to operate off of. As practitioners become increasingly mobile, whether in the hospital, the clinic, or at home, there needs to be a way to instantly connect with other practitioners and patients. To this regard, cellular networks are becoming one of the most important factors to the spread of telemedicine. With networks supporting much higher bandwidth in years past (e.g. from 3G to 4G) this allows for transfer of high definition video and high quality audio to be transmitted from virtually any location. This in turn facilitates the development of other modalities for clinical evaluation in which rely on providing a clear, and concise picture of what is happening on the other end.

3. What are ways physicians and scientists can help promote telemedicine and make it even larger?

Dr. H: The best way for care providers to promote the use of telemedicine is to advocate for new laws that world provide reimbursement for these services. Currently many of the private insurance companies do not reimburse for services provided over telemedicine, though the government has become increasingly interested in telemedicine services with the new mandates to increase insurance coverage to Americans. Scientists and practitioners also can help promote telemedicine by comparing services provided face to face versus telemedicine to determine if the same standard of care can be provided between the two modalities for the respective specialties and clinics. My impression is that patients would be hesitant to use telemedicine because they possibly see this service as inferior to a face-to-face visit.

The versatility of telemedicine makes it easily applicable to clinical practice. During these earlier stages of telemedicine, those with little to no access to health services will likely benefit first from this application, but as telemedicine continues to grow in popularity and becomes more widely used, the infrastructure and usage will also evolve and expand. It will be exciting to see how these technologies become integrated into medicine over the next 5-10 years.