August 5, 2014 | Catherine Fant
The woman has been living in her house for nearly 50 years. It's a neat little cottage a few miles from town. She's in her 80s now, and her husband passed away a few years ago, but she prefers to stay here by herself. She's in good physical condition, able to get around on her own and take care of errands from time to time. But, her blood pressure and other vital signs need to be monitored several times a week, and she just doesn't have the energy or the money to visit the doctor's office that often.
She doesn't have to, thanks to the increasing availability of telemedicine. With medical care provided through live two-way Internet video, she can be taken care of by nurses in the comfort of her living room.
Telemedicine has been a game-changer (a life-saver even) for several demographics, including the elderly, people living in remote areas, and those in developing communities that don't have adequate health care options. Using cutting-edge technology, these patients can now have care delivered by doctors and nurses who may not even be in the same state- at a cost that's far less than an office visit.
Telemedicine has the potential to decrease emergency room visits and hospitalizations because medical issues can be monitored and treated on a regular basis—before they get severe. It has also streamlined the process for nurses, allowing them to take care of more patients, more frequently.
The rise in telemedicine has coincided with the improvement in the quality of online video and the availability of affordable portable computing devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Telemedicine is still in its early stages and is expected to grow exponentially as more people get access to those devices. An analyst from the research firm IHS predicted that the U.S. telehealth market would grow from $240 million in 2013 to $1.9 billion in 2018. However, it is expected to result in increased savings for patients and insurers.
"The cost of health care is a critical issue in the United States, with nearly one of every five dollars' worth of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) going to medical expenditures," said Theo Ahadome, senior analyst at IMS Research. "Telehealth can help mitigate these costs by reducing the number of patient readmissions and cutting down on in-home care visits. Because of this, the United States is the world's largest market for telehealth, driving the growth of the worldwide business."
The impact of telemedicine is being felt worldwide. A report from InMedica predicts that in 2017 1.8 million patients worldwide will be served via telemedicine. The market is expected to grow to $35 billion by the following year.
As the use of telemedicine grows, there are issues that will need to be ironed out. How will health insurance coverage work for telemedicine consultations? What are the standards of online care? Will a virtual patient-nurse relationship ever be as comprehensive as an in-person visit? And can an Internet-based service ever be fully confidential?
Despite those concerns, it's clear that the promise of telemedicine is great, especially for patients in remote and otherwise underserved areas. Mercy Health president and CEO Lynn Britton put it best when he recently discussed the topic on a panel: "Healthcare is [now] simultaneously local, regional, and virtual."