Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the basic healthcare experiences that we have all had have been pretty consistent, and frankly not all that intuitive. First, you have to find your provider. Which in itself is a pain. Looking through your health insurance’s network for the right type of provider and making sure they are highly rated can be panic attack inducing.
Then, once you find the perfect provider, you call and schedule an appointment with the front desk. It turns out that everyone else wants the perfect provider as well, so your appointment could be weeks or even months away. So you sit and wait.
Once the big day arrives, you drive down to the doctor’s office or clinic and check in. After all that waiting, it's time to wait again in the exam room. When your provider finally shows up, you get 10-30 minutes with them and sent on your way with a bill.
All of this is only if your reason for visiting isn’t time sensitive. If you have a more urgent issue, you jump in the car and head to the closest urgent care center or emergency room. Sit waiting for a few hours and then leaving with an even bigger bill.
This may seem a little melodramatic, and to be honest it is, but for millions of American’s, it's the norm that we all expect. That is, until recently.
A new type of healthcare service has emerged in the last ten years that aims to upend that entire cycle, and provide consumers with on demand healthcare services without ever having to leave the house. This new model goes under the moniker telemedicine.
Telemedicine is a generalized term that encompasses a vast variety of medical services that use telecommunication methods for providing clinical care over distances. It allows healthcare providers to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients using common technology, such as video conferencing and smartphones, without the need for an in-person visit. Let’s dig into the various forms you can find doctors and patients using right now.
Forms of telemedicine
Telemedicine can be classified into three main categories: remote patient monitoring, store-and-forward, and interactive telemedicine.
Remote patient monitoring
Also known as telemonitoring, allows patients with chronic diseases to be monitored in their homes with mobile medical devices that collect data like blood sugar levels, blood pressure, or other vital signs. Your provider can then access that data and review it at any time to make sure your treatment is on track, or call you into the office if something is off. Remote caregivers can review the data instantly.
Diabetes is one of the most common diseases where doctors are currently using remote patient monitoring. Through a device the size of a beeper (if you still remember what those are), intervaled blood glucose monitoring, doctors are able to track how their patients blood sugar is changing throughout the day, and make changes to their treatment plan accordingly. This is a giant leap forward in the way doctors and patients are able to manage diabetes treatments, as before their data was limited to information provided by patients at regularly scheduled visits.
Diabetes is by no means the only condition that remote patient monitoring is being used to manage treatment. The method has countless applications already available treating everything ranging from dementia to infertility treatments.
Store-and-forward, also known as asynchronous telemedicine, is a tool that your average consumer will see the benefits of in only limited capacities. However, hospital systems and doctors have become heavily reliant on these platforms in recent years as a way to make sure every one of your providers are able to share and view your current medical records without having to rely on tedious requests. This lets providers share patient information efficiently, such as lab results, with a physician at another location.
If you don’t work in the medical industry, you’ll never really see this type of telemedicine. However, it has become the standard within most medical systems as it helps them lower their costs and provide a higher quality of care for their patients.
How does it work? Before these systems existed, let’s say that you go to a doctor and she prescribes a certain treatment for a condition. Then, you go to another doctor for a different reason. Unless you remember to tell your second doctor about your first treatment they may be inclined to prescribe you something that should not be combined with the first. With the store-and-forward systems this is generally a concern of the past, and all of your providers will be able to see all of your past and current medical records.
Finally, interactive telemedicine allows physicians and patients to communicate in real time. Such sessions can be conducted in the patient's home or in a nearby medical facility and include telephone conversations or the use of video conferencing software that complies with HIPAA regulations to protect the information of consumers.
The interactive telemedicine world is one of the most saturated markets with dozens if not hundreds of options available to consumers or providers. These options run the gamut from platforms allowing rural providers to meet with their patients who may be hours away by car and others that allow chronic care managers to constantly interact with their patients, and still others that give general consumers access to doctors for minor medical needs at any time of day all for a low monthly subscription fee.
Teladoc, one of these subscription based platforms is the most prolific of these interactive telemedicine platforms. This easy to use platform costs less than $20 a month, and gives consumers the ability to speak with a provider 24 hours a day 365 days a year. After enrolling, a consumer just downloads the app, and when they have a concern such as a child with a fever in the middle of the night, they simply request a visit with just a few clicks. Within an hour, you will be speaking with a locally licensed doctor who can diagnose an issue and even write you a prescription. All for no additional costs. Get Teladoc here.
The good news is that both the benefits and applications of telemedicine are many. Multiple sources, including the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), have listed the four fundamental benefits of telemedicine as:
“Reducing or containing the cost of healthcare is one of the most important reasons for funding and adopting telehealth technologies,” writes the ATA. It is pretty much accepted that telemedicine can help to save money in healthcare by increasing efficiency via reduced travel times, fewer or shorter hospital stays, and by further automating administrative roles and responsibilities, which make up 31 percent of employees in the average physician’s office.
Telemedicine improves quality of care by making it easier for providers to follow-up with patients, as well as to monitor patients remotely, and respond to questions on demand.
Telemedicine makes it easy for primary care doctors to consult medical specialists on a patient case, and for patients to see a needed specialist on a rare form of cancer, no matter their location.” Ease of access will inevitably lead to more consistent engagement, meaning “more questions asked and answered, a stronger doctor-patient relationship, and patients who feel empowered to manage their care.”
You can’t discount patient demand, and a world without telemedicine is becoming a world of the past. “Over the past 15 years, study after study has documented patient satisfaction and support for telemedical services. Such services offer patients the access to providers that might not be available otherwise, as well as medical services without the need to travel long distances,” writes the ATA.
Although there are already thousands of products currently available to patients and providers, there is a severe limitation to these kind of platforms…adoption. While many of these telemedicine products offer measurable benefits over traditional treatments, still thousands more have yet to be clinically proven as effective, and your average doctor or health system simply don’t have the time and resources to test and find the right tool for their patients. So, many of these tools, even the excellent ones, sadly never get more than a few thousand users spread around the country.
One platform that is showing real promise, is Apple Health. Automatically downloaded on all newer iPhones, Apple has made a big investment in their health tool, which can now connect with hundreds of wearable and home health products and offer meaningful results that can be shared with providers. As the health tool, and others like it, start to grow in capabilities and users, there is a higher likelihood of health systems using them for monitoring and treating consumers through means of telemedicine.
As the technical capabilities of these telemedicine platforms progress, and younger doctors who have started their careers relying on telemedicine applications become a larger percentage of the workforce, we are going to see a shift in the way we view healthcare. The giant, sterile hospitals that we have all become familiar with in the last 100 years may give way to a more personalized local care experience. Although the technology might not be there now, within the next few years, we will undoubtedly see a thorough transformation in healthcare. The benefits of telemedicine are clear, and these tools and processes are here to stay.
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