The rise of telehealth
Technology has become part of almost every aspect of our lives, and the medical field is no exception. Electronic medical records, while previously rare, are commonplace, and you can see the application of technology from the hospital setting to the home—and even to care while on the go or in flight.
Virtual health care, typically referred to as telehealth or telemedicine, is experiencing explosive growth. It is now possible to share data such as your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight electronically with your provider and for your provider to respond electronically and communicate care recommendations based upon your data. An early program performed by the University of Chicago—the Mobile Phone Diabetes Project—demonstrated improved glucose control, patient satisfaction, and decreased cost of care by simply sharing information by cell phone. The Veterans Health Administration also demonstrated that home monitoring and sharing of data electronically can result in high patient satisfaction and a significant reduction in hospital admissions.
Telemedicine has now advanced, and many health care systems now provide access and health care via videoconference with health care providers. Telehealth services are particularly valuable to remote and rural locations where access to providers may be limited. For instance, in areas where there is no ophthalmologist, we can now take a digital picture and transmit images of the retina of premature infants to detect and treat retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that might otherwise have gone unrecognized. Some seniors may be able to access care from a dermatologist or specialist who is otherwise not available locally.
In-person doctor appointments are still important
It sounds like a terrific option and a powerful new adjunct to care, but telehealth is not a replacement for in-person medicine. In one study performed by Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, while 90% of patients receiving a telehealth visit felt the quality of care was good, almost half (41%) still expressed a preference for an in-person visit. Sometimes there is just no replacement for the interpersonal connection of an office visit, in addition to the ability of your provider to perform an in-person exam.
Other real concerns with telemedicine include the security and privacy of your medical records as well as some legal considerations. It is important that you and your providers ensure that all appropriate security safeguards are in place and that your health care information is kept confidential and protected from access by unauthorized users. From a legal perspective, providers offering services must be licensed in the state where you, the patient, are located, and they must be appropriately credentialed to provide the service.
As with all technological innovations, telemedicine presents great promise and a real opportunity to facilitate and improve your care. Using it appropriately as yet another option in health care will advance medicine for many years to come.
Editor's note: The information in the September column about blood pressure measurements was based on recommendations from the American Medical Association.
In good health,
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