Your child wakes up with itchy, very red eyes. You and your spouse both need to get to work; there’s no time for a doctor visit today. Is it spring allergies, or could it be pink eye? Is a prescription needed? Can your kid go to school?
This is a classic case in which telemedicine can help.
Telemedicine (also known as telehealth) is a growing trend in the medical world. Technology now enables a parent or patient to talk with a doctor or nurse electronically via phone, email, or live video chat. Telemedicine services are often available before, during, and after regular business hours—and can potentially connect people with doctors located anywhere.
Using the possible pinkeye case as an example, a parent can go online and fill out a form to describe the child’s symptoms that is quickly submitted to a doctor. Mom or Dad can also upload photos, or even request a video appointment to speak person-to-person (similar to Skype) with a health care provider, or, just talk over the phone with a doctor or nurse. Within a short amount of time, a parent has a diagnosis and, if necessary, a prescription, and knows if the child can safely attend school.
No driving to a clinic. No waiting. No taking time off work.
For non-emergency situations like this one, telemedicine can help people get the medical answers they need, conveniently. And the fee is often similar to a co-payment.
Evolution of Telemedicine
Telemedicine has been used since the 1990s in after-hours call centers, and can be an efficient and cost-effective way to deliver pediatric care, with a focus on primary care services.
Chronic conditions requiring regular care, including asthma, diabetes, obesity, cardiac conditions, epilepsy, and mental health disorders, have also been shown to respond favorably to a telemedicine environment, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Adult and pediatric cases are generally both welcome in telemedicine. Diagnoses and treatment advice are generally delivered to patients using a network of physicians employed by for-profit companies. Some companies provide second opinions or specialist consultations.
Greater Access to Care
Telemedicine expands access to care—and can improve it. When children go to a rural emergency room or an urgent care center without pediatric expertise, the local doctor can tele-consult with a specialist from a larger institution.
Adults with health concerns can tele-converse with a specialist without leaving home—a potentially life-saving benefit for people living in small towns and rural communities, and for patients seeking a second opinion.
Crunching the Numbers
A 2015 Cochrane review found that the use of telemedicine either led to similar outcomes as face-to-face visits (in managing heart failure, for example) or to better care (such as controlling blood glucose in people with diabetes).
Thirty-five U.S. states have enacted telemedicine parity laws; these mandate that insurers pay for services rendered by telemedicine that would ordinarily be covered if patients visited the office in person.
One study looked at whether these insurance plans had greater numbers of physician follow-up appointments or ER visits compared to those who visited a doctor’s office in person. Data showed that follow-ups during the first two months were fewer in the telemedicine group.
Telemedicine is unlikely to replace face-to-face appointments any time soon, but the opportunities for addressing patients’ questions and concerns via the conveniences of modern technology makes for improved doctor-patient relationships, better access to care, and more successful outcomes.