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Telemedicine: Can it be the future of healthcare?

Telemedicine

Telemedicine is one of the fastest-growing domains in the healthcare industry. Telemedicine is the practice of providing healthcare services like evaluation, diagnosis and treatment to the patients using telecommunication technology where both the healthcare provider and patient are present at different locations. 

Telemedicine, in today’s time, provides effective connectivity when the patients and the healthcare giver (physician/ doctor) due to different circumstances are unable to present at the same place and same time. 

Origin of Telemedicine

Some of the early use of Telemedicine can be traced back to 1905 in Europe and in fact more accurately by Dutch physicians. At that time the telecommunication services were used for the transfer of electrocardiograms. Later after the 1920s, the telecommunications devices were used for radio consultants from medical centres located on the mainland by patients on ships at sea or remote islands situated in different geographies across the globe. 

In the early 1950s, the United States and Canada started using transmission of radiographic images. After the rapid improvement in telecommunication systems in the 1960s, the use of images, videos and other complex medical data were utilized for Telemedicine programs. Astronauts used some of the early application of Telemedicine programs during space programmes. Which later on laid the foundation of modern-day Telemedicine. 

Telemedicine today is in use for treatment and diagnosis of a wide variety of acute and chronic infectious diseases. Some of the common conditions include sore throat, Diarrhea, Colds and Flu, Arthritic Pain, Allergies, Sprains & Strains, Bladder Infections, congestive heart failure, diabetes, obstructive pulmonary disease, Skin Inflammations, Sinusitis, Conjunctivitis, Pharyngitis, Respiratory Infections, Rashes and many more. 

In recent time Telemedicine has been in use for the treatment of  HIV, Hepatitis C virus (HCV), and tuberculosis.  Advancement of technology and increased consumer satisfaction is expected to widen the Telemedicine application for other diseases further also. 

Types of Telemedicine Services

The Telemedicine services include three primary functions- Interactive Media, Store and Forward, and Remote Patient Monitoring System.

American Telemedicine Association (ATA) also includes a growing variety of applications and services under Telemedicine such as emails, smartphone, two-way video, wireless tools, and other forms of telecommunications technology between patient and physician. 

Interactive Media

Interactive media provide a platform for patients and physicians to interact with each other on a real-time basis using audiovisual telecommunications technology.

Phone consultant, video conferencing method helps physicians in accessing the patients past medical records, evaluation and treatment of common illness and disease. 

Telemedicine services in interactive media follow HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliances.  HIPAA ensures data privacy and security provisions for keeping all patient information safe and secure. HIPAA compliant boosts patients’ confidence in interactive media. 

Remote Patient Monitoring

The Remote Patient Monitoring system helps in monitoring the patients’ essential personal health and medical data while both physician and patient are residing at different locations. Mobile devices are used to collect patients vital medical statistics which includes blood sugar, blood pressure, Active heart monitoring, Sleep apnea, and other essential stats.

Store and Forward

Store and Forward method help in more comfortable sharing of patients information among different practitioners based at various locations. A general physician may refer to a specialist physician, located at different locations or may share the patient’s data with a nurse, caregiver, or other such professionals for regular monitoring of vital stats of patience. 

Challenges in Telemedicine Services

Telemedicinedicne over the last few years has evolved a lot. But it still has to overcome many technological, social and legal challenges. The policymaker, service provider and payer (patient) need to be on the same table to implement the Telemedicine services successfully. Some of the difficulties about the Telemedicine are as follows:

Legal Policies 

Different countries worldwide follow different cyber law and practices. To make Telemedicine efficient and effective, it needs to be compatible according to the concerned countries law.

Privacy policy, healthcare law, reimbursement policies, network usage, data exchange, billing procedures, and many other factors are needed to be regularised in order to implement Telemedicine service. 

In certain countries, governments have higher priority for healthcare, so there remains a low chance for private players to enter this segment. Similarly, some countries have additional guidelines and restrictions for private players.

Acceptance Issue

It is always hard to bring new changes initially, but in case of sensitive issues like health, it becomes even more challenging to get mutual agreement from both sides. Many doctors and patients like physical interaction over digital interaction. 

Technological Challenges

Doctors know their patients’ medical history, and often it becomes difficult to diagnose a minor condition through images and video. No technology is error-proof. There are always chances that minor technological error or system outrage can lead to significant physical error or harm to the patient. System outage, loss of personal data, privacy issues are some of the technological challenges that need to be overcome in order to initiate Telemedicine service in new geographical areas.

Communication speeds, Information storage (databases), Software/ Application development, Digitizing information (digital cameras, scanners, etc.), Security (encryption, password protection), are some of the technological developments which are expected to make a huge impact in the Telemedicine domain in the upcoming years.

Costly Services

Telemedicine services require a lot of investment and time. Initially, the operational cost per patient is quite high. Training the doctor, manager, healthcare worker, acquiring new devices, promotional activity, patient education programmes, recruiting other technicians,  etc. are the factors that make Telemedicine expensive services at initial stages. 

But with time, increased demand from the consumer side can bring down the overall cost of operation and can bring a return on investment. 

Benefits of Telemedicine

Telemedicine provides a lot of benefits to both healthcare providers and patients. From the patient’s perspective Telemedicine helps in saving the travelling time, limits the exposure to the potentially contagious patients in hospital visits, and privacy to the patients. 

Increased accessibility to speciality care is one of the primary advantages of Telemedicine. Similarly, another benefit is “No missing work”, with Telemedicine today’s working professionals can communicate with their physician at any time when they want to. Working professionals can schedule an appointment during a work break or even after the working hours.

Children & old age people are another beneficiary of Telemedicine.  It will help them consult the best physicians over a long distance & that too, without travelling to the physician. 

Similarly, from the perspective of healthcare providers, Telemedicine helps in improving their efficiency since it limits the chances of missing appointments. Telemedicinedicne can help physicians to increase revenue since they can provide service to a large number of patients based at different locations during a short period. 

With the expectation to gain advantage from the untapped and evolving market, many companies have entered the Telemedicine service over the last few years. Some of the key companies in the Telemedicine market includes Nutrimedy, Beam, GYANT, Hale Health, Zipnosis, SnapMD, Heal, Psyalive and many others.

The higher demand from working professionals, easy to use services (user-friendly applications & software system), time-saving, cost-effective services, healthcare broker (health insurance) and technological progress in healthcare are some of the factors which are expected to drive the Telemedicine market in upcoming years. 

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