Technology is constantly evolving, leading to significant changes in our everyday lives. A few years ago, it would have been incredible to think you could have a 3D TV in your living room or a phone that has similar capabilities to a computer, but, with rapid advances in technology it feels like anything is possible these days. These advances have many uses beyond entertainment and one such use currently being explored is that of doctors using webcams to treat patients for a range of ailments, from the common cold to complex chronic diseases.
Telemedicine, the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care, isn’t a new concept in society. In fact, telemedicine has been used in a basic form since the early 1900s when people living in remote parts of Australia used two-way radios to communicate with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. The idea of telemedicine has evolved since then and with the majority of the population now owning some form of computer and a webcam, doctors are exploring new ways to treat patients.
The latest advance in telemedicine is called the virtual house call. Using a webcam, an internet connection, and some secure software a doctor can examine patients who live hundreds of miles away for simple illnesses. This is a convenient advance for patients living in rural areas where a visit to the doctor can involve a full day’s travel. There is even the ability to download an app on your smartphone and connect to a doctor for a set price per visit. This can save patients both time and money when seeking a diagnosis for a cough or runny nose.
The use of technology in this way is still in its infancy, however, there are calls from patient groups to expand the use of telemedicine for patients with complex chronic diseases. People who suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s require regular trips to the doctor for check-ups. This can prove a huge inconvenience for sufferers of the disease who may become disoriented when confronted with a busy public area en route to the doctor’s office or for patients who live in rural areas. Research has suggested that sufferers of Alzheimer’s deal much better with the disease if they regularly visit a specialist, however, more than 40% of Alzheimer’s patients don’t see a specialist with the travel time stated as the main factor.
The idea of a virtual house call is gaining interest from all corners. Insurance companies such as LiveHealth Online and Wellpoint Inc. are now offering versions of telemedicine with provider American Well offering a direct-to-customer service in 44 states. The idea is spreading beyond GPs and chronic specialists, with psychiatrists exploring the benefits of using the technology for follow up counselling. Guidelines issued by the Federation of State Medical Boards outline the benefits of using telemedicine and state it can be held in the same standard as an office visit.
The full list of benefits and drawbacks are yet to be established with this new idea, however, many experts, doctors, and medical professionals are jumping on board. Questions such as how to avoid overprescribing antibiotics and issuing in-person tests before prescribing drugs have been raised with the worry that using this technology could lead to wrong prescriptions. The answer is to fully train doctors in the use of this technology and to ensure each diagnosis is carefully made with requests to come in-office applied to cases with any doubt.
The idea of doctors using a webcam to treat patients virtually is one that has captured the imagination of the medical world and the wheels are already in motion to make this form of telemedicine work. In the next few years it is possible that this system will be implemented, saving time and adding convenience to the lives of patients and doctors alike.