Telemedicine is coming.
Telemedicine is usually depicted as a new technology that needs to be pushed into the everyday delivery of healthcare even if it is difficult to underscore its importance and support its effectiveness. I aim to prove that this is a wrong approach.
First, telemedicine is not something coming out of the blue, the demand for it existed way before its advancement. At the dawn of the radio age, in 1925, Hugo Gernsback, a never-resting German technologist invented the concept of the “teledactyl” that would allow doctors to not only see their patients through a viewscreen but also touch them from miles away with spindly robot arms. As Gernsback explained it, the device would have made it possible to “feel at a distance”. He basically described the function and aim of telemedicine – going a “tiny bit” further than technology would allow it today.
But the need for healing from a distance was already there (more than) a century ago. Patients who could or would not want to go into cities or doctors who yearned for consulting a specialist colleague, they all wished for something to make their lives easier. That something is telemedicine.
Telemedicine belongs to the core of practicing medicine
Second, the essence of practicing medicine has been obtaining as much data about the patient’s health or disease as possible and making decisions based on that. Physicians have had to rely on their experience, judgment, and problem-solving skills while using rudimentary tools and limited resources for centuries.
One of the key components in medical knowledge and skill transfer has always been peer-to-peer communication. Physicians discuss, publish, consult, debate, share and suggest treatment options, opportunities and new developments to each other. When they face an unprecedented issue or a hard decision to make, they can consult colleagues at the same institutions or make phone calls; maybe share experience in a medical event. Lately, they have had the chance to do the same through online channels too, from instant messaging to social media. And now, they also have telemedicine to remotely consult with peers and specialists.
But when you look at articles and papers about how telemedicine is used in care, you easily get the impression that people look at it as one of the fancy technologies the Internet era brought upon us. They are all wrong. Telemedicine belongs to the core of practicing medicine.
Physical presence should not be overvalued in the digital age
Third, the medical community still overvalues physical presence. And those who do diagnostics never meeting patients are considered rude outsiders. But as Bruce Judson explained it in The Huffington Post, the single most important lesson of the past two decades is that a physical presence is, ultimately, a weak barrier to virtual competition. So, it is not worth looking at telemedicine as something one-off and fancy, but as an element of the trends towards the future.
We cannot expect every patient to travel and leave from work for minor or even bigger health problems in the digital age when they manage huge chunks of their daily lives digitally. We cannot expect physicians to know everything that is available in peer-reviewed papers (over 27 million of them), especially when we already use algorithms to scan through waste amounts of data. Moreover, we cannot expect doctors to visit every patient, especially if you look at the data about the shortage of medical professionals. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there is a worldwide shortage of around 4.3 million physicians, nurses, and allied health workers. At the same time, the need for health care services is rising: illnesses are becoming easier to catch, civilizational diseases such as diabetes and obesity is on the rise while aging societies need more and more care.
The answer to all those burning questions about the future of Healthcare: telemedicine. It offers a chance to get in touch, ask and receive responses for questions that need to be answered immediately. It offers a chance for people living in remote areas to still get proper care and only visit the GP if necessary. Telemedicine, through instant and digital communication, can also help balance out inequalities.
Telemedicine is coming.