What is telemedicine? Everything you need to know.

When you are coming down with something, you usually reach out to a primary care physician to book an appointment. Even after that, you end up spending time in the waiting area. Telemedicine changes it all – and allows you to consult a doctor right where you are.

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When you are feeling under the weather, you usually reach out to a primary care physician to book an appointment. Even with a prior appointment, you end up spending time in the waiting area. Here, you also have to be careful about not catching an infection from other patients.

Now imagine this: when you need medical advice, you schedule a video call with your doctor. You get to talk to him from the safety of your home and share all the reports she needs to refer to digitally. No more worries about infections from other patients, no more waiting in a queue for your turn.

Welcome to the world of telemedicine!

What is telemedicine?

The World Health Organization defines telemedicine as:

“The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies (ICT) for the exchange of valid information for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.”

The word itself means "healing from a distance". It indicates the use of ICT to improve medical outcomes through increased access to care and information.

Broadly, telemedicine can be divided into three categories:

  1. Interactive telemedicine: where patients and physicians interact in real-time. This also includes “supervised” telemedicine, where a senior doctor helps on-ground staff with diagnosis and advice.
  2. Remote patient monitoring: also called telehealth, where patient data like blood sugar level, blood pressure etc. is capture by mobile medical equipment and monitored by care providers remotely.
  3. Store and forward: where a doctor shares the health information with other healthcare professionals or specialists for their advice.

Now that we understand what telemedicine is, let us look at some of the key advantages it can bring you.

When is telemedicine a good option?

Telemedicine is not appropriate for situations that require immediate hands-on care. Emergencies like a heart attack or stroke, or broken bones that may require x-rays, or casts – for example – must be handled in person.

That said, telemedicine is a great alternative for simple issues and consultation.

For example, if you suspect that a cut you have maybe infected – you can schedule a video call with your doctor to discuss the symptoms and even get a prescription for any medication you may need.

Another example would be when you are on a vacation and catch a throat infection or cannot find the regular medication you are on. Just reach out to your physician and get a prescription that would best suit you.

Psychotherapy and teledermatology are gaining in popularity as well. Scheduling a virtual consultation for minor, episodic illnesses like colds and flu, insect bites, sore throats, diarrhoea, and pink eye is also becoming more common due to the current pandemic situation.

The benefits of telemedicine

1. More convenient and accessible care

While one may believe that a doctor’s healing touch is an important part of healthcare, a recent Cisco global survey found that 74% of patients surveyed prefer easy access to healthcare services over in-person interactions with care providers.

Virtual care lets you access on-demand care without the associated waiting time and the costs associated with in-person visits. A recent study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that waiting for a doctor costs patient about US$43 in lost time per visit.

Telemedicine is a boon for patients who live in remote locations or are homebound.

2. Cost-effective healthcare

Remote analysis and monitoring services coupled with electronic data storage help reduce the healthcare costs for all stakeholders – you, the healthcare provider, and your health insurer.

Further, it reduces the number of non-urgent ER visits required and the costs associated with transportation for regular checkups. American Hospitals Association reported that a telemedicine program resulted in 11% savings on costs.

These savings can be replicated worldwide and maybe even more significant in the developing world where the doctor-patient ratio is low.

3. Extend specialist access

Telemedicine benefits patients living in remote or rural areas much more as they can access specialist care without worrying about a long commute. Further, your regular physician can now refer you to the specialist you need, without having to worry about their location.

4. Increased patient engagement

The cost of disengaged healthcare consumers is high for all involved. Telemedicine encourages a deeper patient engagement by making care schedule and appointments easier to follow.

Virtual visits help build confidence that care providers are available and involved in your care. It also makes it much easier for the patient to reach out to the doctor with any questions and early warning signs to ensure that the recovery is on track.

It is no surprise that according to a recent study published in American Journal for Managed Care found that patients using telemedicine score lower for depression, anxiety, and stress, and have 38% fewer hospital admissions.

Telemedicine has been around in some form or the other since the 1950s. The advances made in Internet and communication technology has made it much more prevalent today. As we are pushed into a low-contact world by the COVID-19 pandemic, the time of telemedicine has finally arrived.

Remember that telemedicine does not mean that you never have to visit a clinic or doctor’s office again. But it does make healthcare more accessible and affordable in many scenarios. It also means that you save on waiting time when all you need is a consultation.


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