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The Evolution of Telemedicine

The idea of jumping on a mobile video app to consult your doctor about a sore throat or recurring headache may seem like a completely modern thing, but it may surprise you to learn how long telecommunications technologies have been used for the delivery of healthcare.  The approach has definitely gained traction and become mainstream in just the last few years, but it has been around since the first half of the 20th century.

Early Examples of Telemedicine

The first known example of a medical record transfer occurred in Pennsylvania in 1940 when radiology images were sent 24 miles between two towns over telephone lines. Today, we think nothing of sending data from place to place, but at the time the ability to get the expertise of a physician in another location was a significant breakthrough. Building on this idea, a Canadian doctor engineered a teleradiology system for use in the Montreal area.

Another breakthrough occurred when clinicians at the University of Nebraska pioneered the use of video for healthcare purposes in 1959. They set up two-way television transmission to send information to medical students across campus. In 1964 they used the technology to perform video consultations with patients and doctors at a state hospital.

Healthcare Access for Rural Communities

Telemedicine turned out to be an ideal solution in rural areas with limited access to healthcare. One notable project in the 1960’s was the result of a partnership between NASA and the Indian Health Services. It was called Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care (STARPAHC). Using microwave technology transmitted x-ray photographs, electrocardiographs, and other medical information was sent to the Public Health Service hospital and used to treat both Native Americans on the Papago Reservation and astronauts in space.

The success of the STARPAHC program led others to invest in the advancement of telemedicine technology and formed the basis for the solutions we use today.

Beyond the Medical Office

Beginning early in the 1970’s healthcare providers started deploying technology that let a physician and patient in one location, consult with a specialist in another using video conferencing equipment. This equipment was expensive and difficult to set up. It also required specialized training to use. So while this approach did help people get access to specialized care, it did not eliminate the need to visit the doctor’s office.

The advent of the internet and the dawning of the mobile age have changed all that. Now there are easy to use applications for PCs and mobile devices that allow patients to connect with their doctor from anywhere. This makes it possible for patients to receive primary, urgent, and specialty care without the need for an in-person visit. Online-only healthcare options provide care on-demand 24×7. Wearable technologies represent another opportunity for remote patient monitoring, allowing physicians to evaluate a patient’s vital signs in real time.

What’s Next?

The healthcare system in the United States is being stressed by several factors including the aging population and the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to insurance to millions of Americans. Telemedicine will be an important part of the solution as it makes it possible to treat patients more efficiently and less expensively. What today may be a novel approach will soon become commonplace.

Software companies, healthcare organizations and academics are investing billions of dollars into looking for more ways to leverage technology to improve healthcare experiences and outcomes. Telemedicine will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the next generation.

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