Telemedicine: The Case for Acting Sooner Rather Than Later

Gienna Shaw, February 15, 2011

For this month's HealthLeaders magazine cover story I interviewed a number of healthcare organizations that are using remote health technologies to improve efficiency, respond quickly to emergencies, and open up new streams of revenue. Many of those I interviewed said telemedicine isn't just as good as being there—it's better. And although the technology is hardly widespread, it does show signs of growth, according to HealthLeaders Media's annual industry survey. Nearly half (46%) of respondents said they have one or more telemedicine programs in place. Another 41% say they'll have one in place in one to five years.

Advancing technology—the availability of faster and more reliable networks, wireless devices, high-definition digital images and video, and the ubiquity of mobile devices—is creating a foundation for a system of virtual healthcare where neither patient nor caregiver need be in the same place—or even in a clinical setting at all.

The organizations featured in the article include Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, IL, where Kathleen Webster, MD, director for pediatric critical care and the medical director for the pediatric ICU, can consult on cases from home on her laptop computer. A high-definition monitor and digital stethoscope allow her to see and hear better than she could if she were in the room. "I see a lot of the studies that say telemedicine is equivalent to being there. But I actually think there is a case for saying at times telemedicine is better than being there," she says.

But there are still barriers to adoption: spotty reimbursement, questions about credentialing and other legal and administrative issues, a sometimes sizeable up-front capital investment unlikely to bring an immediate return, and that they can get concrete evidence that remote care is significantly better than care delivered in person.

And while enthusiasm for and anecdotal evidence of telemedicine's potential abound, some say there is simply not enough research to show the effectiveness of telemedicine compared to in-person treatment, especially when it comes to the use of mobile devices.

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