We have become so used to the convenience of mobile technology that we don’t often take stock of how just far we’ve come. Yet, particularly when it comes to remote health, this tech is making a real difference to our lives. During our current pandemic, in which we have to maintain safe distances, remote healthcare gives us advantages we didn’t have just a decade or so ago.
We also need it now more than ever. Between the risk of declining mental health due to social isolation, and a rampant contagion, telemedicine can be a vital lifeline. But there are also challenges. Not all insurers are including it as part of basic packages, potentially leaving the most vulnerable without access. We also have something of a trust issue, with patients hesitant to adopt it because they either don’t fully understand it or have lingering security concerns.
We’re going to have a look at the evolution of telemedicine. How did we get to where we are now, and what technologies have made it possible? How are we using it during this time of crisis?
In-person contact with a doctor is most people’s preferred approach. There’s a certain reassurance that goes along with a visit to the doctor’s office. That said, professionals have long understood that remote medicine doesn’t necessarily mean shirking this bedside manner. Rather, it’s a way to enhance the relationship by providing tools that fit into patients’ lifestyles.
As with many such paths, the start of telemedicine was not centered on the consumer, but the industry. It was used behind the scenes to provide the most convenient and swift service for doctors, and in turn their patients. In 1948, the first radiological images were sent via telephone, allowing specialists to be able to consult on cases at a distance. Just over a decade later, other forms of medical documents were being shared by medical professionals across the country. However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the first forays into telemedicine as we’d recognize it today were trialed, with the Nebraska Psychiatry Institute conducting consultations and therapies via closed-circuit television. This opened the door to developing tools that allow more types of treatment to be conducted remotely — although initially, this was simply in other rooms rather than via great distances.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that technology began to catch up to the potential of remote health services. Following the birth of the internet a few years earlier, 1993 saw the founding of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). The non-profit organization set about bringing together academics, health professionals, technology businesses, and governments to help advance the potential for this burgeoning field. Since the turn of the millennium digital technology has leaped ahead. Legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient privacy, has also developed to suit the changing needs and technology available.
We’ve reached the point at which telemedicine is at its most practical. We’ve had the internet at our disposal for some 30 years now, but it’s only been over the last decade that the tech has become truly accessible. So what elements are instrumental in its adoption?
- Teleconferencing Software. There are few devices we own now that aren’t equipped with some form of camera and video software. Even many of the lowest-priced cell phones on the market are capable of supporting video calls. In fact, many of us undertake these calls with loved ones as our preferred method of communication. This means that patients don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to connect to telemedical services, and we’re already familiar with the use of webcams. It might seem like a small advancement, but it actually represents overcoming two big hurdles to widespread accessibility of remote healthcare.
- Wearable Tech. Remote health isn’t just about the ability to speak to doctors at a distance. It’s also ensuring patients don’t need to spend long periods in hospitals and clinics in order to give specialists data on their conditions. The last handful of years has seen wearable technology become more affordable to patients. Smartwatches and fitness trackers coupled with apps allow us to collect data on our heart rates, blood oxygen levels, and sleep patterns and share these with medical professionals. More specialist wearables for wireless patient monitoring — for mental health, and blood pressure among them — have also become standard parts of medical professionals’ toolbox.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI). The rise of reliable machine learning has resulted in the development of AI in medical applications. This includes a support system for remote healthcare. While doctors consult with patients over video streams, they can access diagnostic software. This analyzes data from the patient’s medical history alongside those of other patients to provide options for care, recommended testing, and potential causes of the medical complaint.
Telemedicine in Tough Times
This all brings us to our present crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public health challenge that in some infrastructural ways we were not well prepared for. However, telemedicine has proven to be a key tool. Doctors can remotely examine and monitor infected patients whose symptoms are not severe enough to warrant hospitalization. It also reduces in-person attendance which puts pressure on healthcare facilities that are already struggling to cope with admissions.
While telemedicine is vital to providing medical attention to those in rural or difficult-to-reach communities, its other significant role is to protect healthcare workers themselves. When patients can avail of remote healthcare, medical professionals are at less risk of exposure. This not only means that it minimizes the potential for a negative impact on their wellbeing. Fewer infected workers also mean less staff absenteeism due to the necessity for isolation. Which in turn lightens the load on public services.
It’s also important to note that the necessity for social distancing has also meant a wider range of non-emergency telehealth services have become necessary. Forms of teledentistry have emerged, using home cameras to undertake examinations and observe potential oral conditions. Dentists are also able to advise on further treatment or remedies that patients can apply themselves. Remote mental health services are also increasingly popular. At a time when we are all under increased stress and loneliness, online counseling is a vital resource.
The digital age in which we’re living has resulted in many medical advances. Among the most accessible of these is remote healthcare. Particularly at a time in which maintaining social distance is vital, greater adoption of these services can make a tangible difference.