How do you fit that long-delayed appointment with your doctor into your jam-packed schedule? Telemedicine may be your answer. Spoiler alert: We haven't figured out how to teleport you into medical offices yet, but telemedicine technologies can connect you and your doctor in cyberspace.
Telemedicine started with occasional two-way television consultations, but now it's expanding and may soon redefine modern health care. With the aid of wearable health monitors, computers, and video, doctors will be able to evaluate, diagnose, and treat you—all without your physical presence in their office.
These technologies offer convenience and huge potential cost savings, but they are not without controversy. Some doctors are concerned about the safety of prescribing drugs without examining the patient in person. Can they really assess what the patient needs over a video link? They also worry that telemedicine could depersonalize your health care. In addition, some medical problems will always demand a physical exam.
Still, some aspects of telemedicine are likely in your future, if they aren't already. Here's what you need to know about this form of health care, and how to use it for your advantage.
How is telemedicine used today?
Telemedicine provides opportunities to keep people healthy and outside of hospitals. For example, in certain regions and medical practices in the US:
- You can send a digital image of a suspicious rash, along with your medical history, to a dermatologist, who will review it, diagnose, and prescribe medication to treat it.
- You can check-in with your doctor after surgery for follow-up care in your own home.
- If you have diabetes, you can monitor your blood sugar levels at home and upload the readings to your doctor's computer, saving yourself a time-consuming visit. Irregular blood sugar levels would generate an alert to the doctor's staff to call you in for immediate intervention to prevent complications.
- If you have hypertension, you can wear a monitor that tracks your blood pressure daily and transmits your results to your medical record, allowing your doctor to track your progress.
What’s ahead in telemedicine?
The American Telemedicine Association anticipates the rise of virtual medical centers, benefiting Americans as well as patients in other countries who can't easily travel to a doctor here. And insurance companies are joining the fan club.
Recently the nation's largest health insurer, United Healthcare, announced that it has established a partnership with Doctor On Demand, along with two other telemedicine companies. By the end of 2016, United Healthcare says that 20 million of its insured patients will be able to use their smartphones to consult with doctors.
But there will be some hurdles to overcome first. Texas has passed a law requiring telemedicine doctors to have an initial face-to-face visit with a patient before providing a diagnosis or a prescription for drugs. And Iowa has banned the remote prescription of abortion pills after webcam consultations with a doctor. Other states are regulating telemedicine in various ways as the practice becomes more widely used.
Is telemedicine right for you?
Here are some of the key pros and cons to help you decide. Among the pros:
1. Convenience. Need a quick consultation with your doctor? Telemedicine can save you travel time and the hassle of sitting in a waiting room with other sick people.
2. Increased rural access. There’s a shortage of doctors in many rural areas of the US. Telemedicine has a unique capacity to increase medical service to rural patients.
3. Cost and efficiency. Doctors often charge less for a telemedicine consultation than they do for an in-person visit. A telemedicine consult might cost $40 to $70, compared for $130 to $180 for an office visit. In addition, telemedicine allows doctors to efficiently and closely monitor patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
4. Second opinions. Telemedicine allows a far-away specialist to evaluate your MRI, X-ray, or other scans and tests. This will help patients who want a second opinion, as well as doctors who want to consult with experts on complicated cases.
Despite this wide range of potential benefits, telemedicine still has its share of downsides:
1. Inadequate assessment. When consulting your doctor online you don’t get a physical examination. Certain non-verbal cues might still slip through the cracks. Your doctor must rely on your own descriptive abilities instead of his or her own expert touch. At worst, this could lead to an improper diagnosis.
2. A depersonalized experience. Telemedicine may be more impersonal than a face-to-face visit with your doctor. A good doctor-patient relationship is characterized by trust and intimacy. Patients often bring up issues during a doctor’s visit that go beyond their immediate health problem.
3. Electronic defaults. Technology is only as reliable as the electrical current that keeps it running. If your Internet connection is disrupted, your session will stop instantly. Technical problems could complicate your online consultation or remote monitoring.
Bottom line: Aim to visit your doctor in person whenever possible. But if you can't be physically present due to work commitments or distance, consider a telemedical option. Consult your primary care doctor or insurance company to get more information and find out if telemedicine services are available to you. And be aware that each state has its own laws and regulations regarding telemedicine.