Over-population has caused many problems all over the world. However, any discussion on the increasing numbers often drifts towards how there aren't enough resources in the world for sustenance of all people. While that is a valid concern, from a healthcare perspective it is a little frustrating to see that not many are talking about how there aren't enough skilled healthcare professionals to cater to each and every one of us. There's always someone somewhere out there who needs medical attention but is not getting it due to the distance between him and the doctor who can help him. Thanks to innovations in communication technology, we now have the option of telemedicine - a more crisp way of saying 'telecommunicating with a doctor who can observe and diagnose patients over great distances'.
Dr Jim Marcin, paediatrician in UC Davis Children's Hospital in Sacramento, CA, highlights the role of technology in medicine. "How important technology can be in the delivery of care where it's most needed, is one way to look at telehealth", he says as a host of an online discussion panel featuring fellow healthcare professionals involved in telemedicine. He also adds that in the 2012-2013 period, about 10 million Americans benefitted from telemedicine. This is a huge number, especially considering that telemedicine is a potentially disruptive innovation when viewed from the traditional healthcare sense. Marcin also concedes that even though 10 million is a huge number, there is a lot more work to be done in telemedicine so that this number can increase in the coming years.
Are people ready for it?
The next question that begs an answer is - are people really ready for such an innovation? Often, the target crowd rejects change when it happens too fast. Is that the same with using technology to reach out to distant healthcare professionals? According to Dr Marcin's presentation, 70% of adult Americans are totally fine with reaching out to a doctor who is only a face on the screen or another username on their Smartphone.
Personal Healthcare Concerns Addressed
Viamed Australia director Guy Saywell has his own theory on the sudden growth in use of telemedicine Down Under. He says that one of the main reasons is how telehealth is perfect when it comes to highly personal medical concerns people might have. "Australian men, with a typically macho attitude toward getting help see this as the preferable option. It ticks the boxes - privacy and convenience." So what about quality of care? "We see frequency of contact increasing with ease of contact, and that's a good thing. As for personal or emotional pain, a person would conceivably feel more at ease in their own home." Saywell does highlight an important point.
If telemedicine is to advance in developing nations, like India and China, regions with high populations and low density of qualified doctors in remote areas, all the positives must be encouraged. In societies where talking about sexual health openly is still seen as an embarrassment, telemedicine can easily come to the rescue. In such cases, "Seeing the family doctor and visiting the local chemist are both daunting prospects, and potentially deal breaking for the patient", say Saywell.
Making Specialized Care Accessible
Another aspect where telemedicine shines through is the area of specializations. Getting in touch with specialized healthcare professionals who are mainly concentrated in metropolitan areas is a huge concern for people in rural areas. This is not only true in developing nations like India, China or Brazil but also in otherwise developed nations such a US, Canada and Australia. Population has nothing to do with it; it's mainly about the distances. Saywell adds, "It's a country the size of the USA but with 1/20 the population; Australia is vast - its outback made up of small towns, suffering from a rural doctor shortage."
Dr John Mayer, a leading expert in the field and active in tele-healthcare delivery, says "With telemedicine a patient can access the best doctors remotely whereas there may not be such a specialist in their community or in their geography. I have found this particularly helpful in my field of clinical psychology and telemedicine particularly applicable in psychology as our tool is conversation, dialogue, and verbal solutions in changing thinking, lifestyle and behaviours."
Then there's the concern of money. In countries where the cost of hospitalization is pretty steep, readmission is a huge hassle. In the US, one in five patients checking out of a hospital checks back in within a month due to improper post-discharge care. This is especially true among patients of chronic illnesses and the elderly. With the installations of proper telemedicine devices such a pressure, weight, heart-rate monitors at home, we can actually foresee a future where there would be minimal cases of readmission for discharged patients.
Technology has indeed come a long way since the days of one doctor making twenty house calls in a remote town. If proper steps to contain the privacy of patients are undertaken and a fully legitimate and capable networks of healthcare professionals can be built, then telemedicine is can actually be one of the most innovative breakthroughs in healthcare to date.