The Doctor is In—Online, Via VideoPicture this: Your elderly mother has limited mobility, and you aren’t keen to leave her waiting for the doctor in an office filled with people fighting unknown viruses and infections. So, between in-person visits, her doctor agrees to meet face-to-face via smartphone: Your mother stays at home, while the doctor can see his patient and even review the vitamins and prescriptions she has set out on the kitchen counter.

Or this: You’re overdue for a prescription refill, but thinking about the half-hour drive across town—plus the time wasted while sitting around, waiting to get in—has led you to put off the five-minute appointment for more than a month. You finally call the doctor’s office and find out there another option: A teleconference consultation you can access in your office, during your lunch hour. You don’t even need to leave your desk.

These scenarios aren’t fantasy. They’re becoming a reality for many people, thanks to the powerful combination of videoconferencing and telemedicine.

Why Telemedicine is Booming

Telemedicine is the use of electronic communications to help patients access healthcare services, including videoconferencing, email, smartphones, and wireless tools: A recent HIMSS Analytics survey of healthcare IT execs found that “70% of respondents who use telemedicine utilize two-way video, the most commonly used form of telemedicine.”

That same survey found the use of telemedicine solutions and services is poised for expansion; some estimates say the global market will reach US$2.9 billion by 2020. This is small surprise, considering the rising videoconferencing adoption rates in business, education, government, and consumer use.

As the industry becomes more familiar and comfortable with telemedicine, it’s being used to improve healthcare coverage, patient satisfaction, and patient outcomes. It’s also efficient and cost effective, which is why it’s increasingly being integrated into operations in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and other healthcare agencies.

The benefits of telemedicine are significant on both sides of the patient-physician relationship.

Improved access. Through technology, patients can access a wide range of care, including dentistry, cardiology, oncology, dermatology, radiology, pathology, and psychiatry. This means high-quality medical care for patients who may otherwise have a hard time getting to a doctor—like those living in rural areas, people with limited mobility or transportation issues, or even patients in treatment or detention facilities.

Cost savings. Travel time and expenses are eliminated for both patients and medical professionals—valuable benefits whether an appointment means missing part of the workday or not. It also allows nurses and physicians to be much more efficient with their time. Because of these efficiencies, many doctors and medical groups charge less for telemedicine consultations than they would for in-person visits.

Technology that’s available globally. The opportunities telemedicine can afford spread far beyond North America. Using 3G, 4G, ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), satellite communication, and traditional broadband communications, videoconferencing removes location as a barrier to service.

How Videoconferencing Technology Serves Patients

In many cases, telemedicine isn’t just more convenient—it’s becoming a key way to help patients obtain a healthier lifestyle. Many chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes require regular follow-up care and specialized knowledge; telemedicine connects people to the expertise they need with less coordination needed.

And, with expanding requirements for health coverage with the Affordable Care Act, healthcare providers are also seeking cost-efficient ways to treat all manner of patients. Videoconferencing allows them to find new ways to deliver the best care on demand.

We’re just beginning to see how telemedicine can be used, and the impact it will have on our healthcare system. The widespread availability of Internet access and the degree of comfort people have with the technology signal that there’s much more to come.

photo credit: NEC-Medical-137 via photopin (license)