With the internet enjoying ‘last-mile delivery,’ it has formed the backbone of several trades and practices that have migrated to the digital environment. Internet connectivity introduces a ‘direct to consumer approach for services, making them convenient and user-centric.

In the same spirit, due to the digital boost, telemedicine has grown phenomenally — beyond the simple patient-physician interactions. And the advent of cutting-edge technologies like chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) has brought healthcare to the comforts of our homes.

In this article, we will explore telemedicine — its definitionadvantagesapplications, and effectiveness.

What is Telemedicine?

The birth of telemedicine took place around the same time as the establishment of telecommunications technology. The scientific community has made passing references to telemedicine since the early 20th century. However, the turn of the century, that brought several technological advancements has truly spurred this field.

Telemedicine has etymological roots in the words tele- and medicine, which literally translate to — ‘transfer of medical information through telecommunication technologies to serve the purpose of consultation, remote examination, or conducting a medical procedure.’

It has emerged as a tool that attempts to bridge gaps and make healthcare more cost-effective, accessible, and patient-friendly. Initially, it was primarily aimed at reaching out to populations residing in remote or rural areas without any access to health services. However, the modern-day telemedicine definition encompasses a wide range of services, extended to all individuals to make healthcare more affordable and accessible for all.

Types of Telemedicine Consultation

Given that technology plays a diverse role in our lives, telemedicine can morph into niche services to suit the patient’s requirements. For this reason, it can be considered as a vast and expansive field that cannot be strictly confined to certain categories. However, for simplicity purposes, it can be broadly classified into the following three types:

1. Asynchronous Telemedicine

Asynchronous telemedicine, popularly known as store-and-forward telemedicine, relates to the sharing of patient information, like lab reports, videos, imaging studies, etc. with the concerned medical professional located in a different region. Special attention is given to confidentiality and security compliance while sharing this information.

Store-and-forward telemedicine facilitates seamless collaboration between patients, care providers, physicians, and specialists. Thus, patients can be under the care of an experienced team regardless of the geographical distance or time zone.

This form of telemedicine is highly preferred in certain specialties like ophthalmology, radiology, and dermatology.

2. Remote Patient Monitoring

Remote patient monitoring, or telemonitoring, enables health care professionals to track and monitor a patient’s activities and vitals even from a distance. It is normally used for high-risk patients, those struggling with chronic diseases, patients who have recently been discharged from the hospital, or elderly patients who are living at home. Classic remote patient monitoring via telemedicine would include surveilling patients with heart conditions or tracking blood-glucose levels in diabetics.

3. Real-time Telemedicine

In real-time telemedicine, patients and doctors make use of real-time video conferencing applications to communicate with each other. They will effectively save you a trip to the physician while also fetching medical help. Basically, they are similar to getting a virtual consultation.

It enjoys great popularity in offering primary care, emergency care, follow-up visits, and the monitoring-cum-management of chronic illnesses.

Pros and Cons of Telemedicine

The adoption of telemedicine practices can benefit both the patients and the practitioners. However, it also comes with a few drawbacks. Here we will weigh in telemedicine advantages and disadvantages for the stakeholders:

Telemedicine benefits for patients:

  • The greatest advantage is the convenience telemedicine offers to patients, which they value more than in-person patient-physician interactions
  • Telemedicine offers access to medical healthcare by specialists who do not feature in the local geography
  • Patients save up on time and money involved in travelling to and from the healthcare organization
  • Since the medical attention is extended remotely, it offers minimum interference with senior or child care responsibilities
  • It maintains a high level of privacy, patient confidentiality, and data security
  • As patients get healthcare right at their homes, they are not exposed to other potentially contagious patients
  • Patients spend less time away from home or work and no longer have to prioritize that above healthcare and result in increased patient engagement

Telemedicine benefits for healthcare providers:

  • Greater revenue as their patient base expands and is no longer limited to time zones or geographical locations. Further, it transforms on-call hours into billable time and attracts new patients, which adds to the revenue.
  • Telemedicine companies enjoy greater savings on operational costs while also attracting a solid return on investment
  • Enhanced healthcare efficiency and increased productivity amongst employees. Physicians can adopt a flexible work-from-home model, which will improve telemedicine job satisfaction.
  • Helps them keep up with the telemedicine clinics that purely operate online
  • Allows them to offer better and improved health services with on-time and regular monitoring or follow-ups
  • Due to the convenience offered by telemedicine, patients are less likely to cancel, reschedule, or miss their appointments
  • It offers a possibility of private payer reimbursement

Limitations of telemedicine:

  • Telemedicine software and devices call for technical training of the healthcare staff and the active involvement of a dedicated IT team
  • Some telemedicine models can introduce disruptions in care continuity
  • While telemedicine can effectively supplement patient monitoring and follow-ups, it cannot (and should not) entirely replace in-person consultations and doctor visits
  • There is no universal law, policy, or regulation that governs telemedicine practices and holds it accountable to certain ethical standards
  • The initial capital investment involved in setting up a telemedicine clinic can, by itself, act as a deterrent to healthcare organizations

Why Should Telemedicine be Embraced?

On a quick perusal of telemedicine advantages, one can truly understand how it benefits the patients and the healthcare systems. Here are a few other considerations that tip the scales in favor of adopting telemedicine:

  • Gone are the days when telemedicine devices used to be wildly expensive. With the proliferation of smartphones, devices that support telemedicine are not only affordable but are also readily available at your fingertips.
  • Millennials prefer interacting with chatbots that feed their need for instant gratification and the same perception extends even into healthcare. As a result, the adoption of telemedicine services not only cuts down the competition but also prepares you for the future.
  • Interestingly, young people are not the only ones online. According to the World Economic Forum, nearly 70% of seniors are embracing technology and getting digitally connected. This fact may be seen as a ripe opportunity as this sector of the population is often the targeted demographic in providing healthcare.
  • Most telemedicine apps employ automation and technologies like chatbots that follow a series of questions that result in efficient data collection. Certain AI-powered technologies can also help interpret these responses. Collectively, these interactions gather all the required data relating to patient health, conditions, and history, even before a physician is assigned the case. Thus, it saves valuable time.
  • An unappreciated telemedicine advantage is the setting up of channel provider collaborations, who can they consult their peers or renowned experts for cases that are beyond the ambit of their practice. Medical collaboration nurtures the healthcare provider community, thereby making them even more competent.

Telemedicine Applications

Here are a few telemedicine examples that bring to light the various applications of telemedicine in the current scenario:

  • Conducting follow-up visits after a consultation
  • Remote management of chronic diseases
  • Offering post-hospitalization care remotely
  • Preventing healthcare to high-risk individuals
  • Telemedicine at schools and work
  • Extending support to assisted living centers

To Conclude

Telemedicine benefits patients and practitioners in many ways. With the projected advancements in technology, the future of telemedicine looks bright and promising. The widespread usage of wearable devices that collects patient health has already set the foundations for the expansion of telemedicine. Soon enough, it will be a widely accepted practice, which will demand unified policies and strict regulations, making them on par with in-person visits.

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