What is Telemedicine?

The advantages of technology are endless but perhaps one of the most extraordinary there is is in it's ability to enhance lives by connecting people located miles apart from one another. For many, the first thought that likely comes to mind is social media — Skype, Facebook, Twitter, dating apps, etc..

The social media industry, however, is not the only sector to use technology as an agent to build human connections. In fact, the medical field is another to recognize and embrace the power that technology has in this regard. The result is telemedicine

The term telemedicine is still relatively new so if you find yourself wondering, “what is telemedicine?”, you are not alone. Let’s start with the basics. Telemedicine is the use of telecommunication technology to connect remote doctors with patients or other physicians to deliver clinical healthcare services or medical consultations from a distance. Applications include two-way videoconferencing, text-based communication via phone messaging, online chat or email, smart phone and tablet apps, self-monitoring devices, and more.  

Ultimately, telemedicine makes it possible for patients to receive services like clinical evaluations, diagnostic impressions, and treatment from an expert without having to travel lengthy distances. Additionally, it affects how physicians connect with each other for clinical consultations. Specifically, onsite doctors can easily reach remote specialists for their expert opinion to inform and guide and treatment.

Telemedicine’s impact on the healthcare industry is significant and for a number of reasons. In addition to the ease of access to specialists, telemedicine has benefits related to quality of care, clinical efficiency, and cost to name a few.

Increased Access to High Quality Care

Beyond improving access to care, telemedicine increases the access to higher quality care. Our country is currently facing a healthcare provider shortage and thus, many healthcare facilities, especially those in remote and rural communities, lack sufficient staffing to treat patients in a timely manner, if at all.

Lacking easy access to providers, patients in need resort to visiting their nearest emergency room for care, which may not be the most appropriate or efficient way for them to receive treatment. Other patients travel long distances outside of their communities to visit specialists or even primary care providers, see generalists who are unable to provide the same level of expertise as a specialist, or they may go without treatment all together.  

Telemedicine expands access to a diverse range of specialty and subspecialty healthcare services, like psychiatry for example, so that patients and physicians can easily connect directly with experts while remaining at their local healthcare facility. With this model, onsite clinical personnel are nearby to supervise telemedicine visits, monitor patients’ vital signs, administer routine medical care, and complete any medical tests that the specialist has recommended.

Other telemedicine models make it possible for patients to access services outside of a clinical setting. In non-emergency situations, for instance, patients can interact with physicians using their smartphones, iPads or laptops to receive medical consultations on the spot, regardless of location.

In post hospital discharge cases, physicians can manage patient care and monitor health data including blood pressure, weight, glucose levels, and vital signs from a distance. When an in-person visit is not possible or may not be necessary, telemedicine gives patients the option to quickly and conveniently access healthcare professionals 24/7. Patients may even experience an improved ability to self-manage their care at home.

Clinical Efficiency

Another significant consequence of the national healthcare provider shortage is inefficient clinical operations, marked by long wait times for patients, overcrowding in emergency departments, increased patient risk and length of hospital say, and high numbers of unnecessary transfers. Implementing telemedicine makes remote physicians accessible almost immediately, so patients can receive care more rapidly than if they had to wait for an onsite doctor to become available or an on-call doctor to arrive at the site.

When facilities rely solely on onsite doctors to provide care, multiple doctors must be hired at multiple sites across a designated region to meet the cumulative patient demand. Telemedicine more efficiently allocates limited physician resources by making it possible for a single physician to extend their clinical reach to multiple sites without having to physically travel to each site. This means that fewer doctors are needed to adequately treat the same number of patients that would require several onsite providers.

Reduced Number of Transfers

Rural hospitals often unnecessarily transfer patients to larger hub-hospitals due to lack of specialized assistance, despite having the resources to implement the same treatment plans onsite. With more convenient access to specialists, either through telemedicine consultations or doctor-to-patient virtual visits, community clinics can offer patients the expert care their needs demand, right from within their own facility.

Hospitals and emergency departments benefit too as there is less overcrowding, fewer avoidable admissions, and more timely delivery of care. When patients visit emergency rooms, telemedicine can be used to quickly administer assessments, determine if admission is actually needed, and provide care more immediately. Also, time is not wasted transporting patients in unstable conditions, when doing so may increase their risk.

Cost

Lack of efficient patient onboarding, transportation costs associated with patient transfers, and avoidable emergency department visits can place a significant financial strain on sites, where resources are already limited. Telemedicine functions to reduce these costly inefficiencies. With fewer transfers, the community healthcare facility is saved the cost of transportation and can benefit from the revenue they retain from keeping more patients onsite. There is also more rapid responsiveness so patients can be both on-boarded and discharged sooner, further demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of telemedicine. Lastly, telemedicine saves patients the financial, emotional, and at times, physical costs of having to travel long distances to visit a physician. 

Overall, telemedicine has taken advantage of technology to change the way our healthcare system operates. Regardless of setting or application, telemedicine undoubtedly has advantages that can benefit a large number of people and healthcare sites.