Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Telemedicine is broadly defined as the use of electronic communication technologies for remote patient-physician contact and care. No longer a mere video conference between patient and provider, telemedicine continuously integrates robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence, genomics, data analytics/informatics, nanotechnology, and virtual reality into its approach, allowing for many of the diagnostic and monitoring techniques previously restricted to medical facilities to be possible from a patient’s home. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine use has skyrocketed within the United States: according to the CDC, the thirteenth week of 2020 saw a 154% increase in telemedicine visits as compared to the same period in 2019. The reason for this shift from in-person visits to remote care has been to avoid transmission of the highly contagious virus. However, research shows that telemedicine is not only useful in the context of a global pandemic; there are numerous other advantages of the technology that make it an important consideration for health care after COVID-19.
First, telemedicine allows for remote access to medical care, regardless of geographical location. This is useful for reaching populations in remote areas throughout the United States, who often experience worse medical outcomes because of limited access to doctors and hospitals. In the same vein, telemedicine allows for improved care for people who have difficulty visiting physicians for reasons other than geography, such as older adults or individuals with disabilities. Lastly, telemedicine promotes equality among hospitals across the country, as providers in one geographical location can call upon the expertise of specialists in other regions via remote consult. In these ways, telemedicine transcends geography, giving equal access to medical care to all who need it.
Second, telemedicine has been shown to result in equal or better outcomes than traditional medicine. By implementing more regular monitoring of patients via diaries, medical dispenser counters, and physiological sensors, telemedicine promotes better, more thorough care of chronic conditions, and also encourages medication compliance. Telemedicine also provides an easy means for patient education and coaching via asynchronous web-based training programs as well as via synchronous video conference with providers or other professionals. Because of its integrative and routine nature, telemedicine is known to result in equal or improved outcomes in chronic patients.
Lastly, after exposure and acclimation to the technology, patients have reported a preference for telemedicine over traditional in-person visits. Telemedicine allows patients to visit providers from their own location, so they do not have to leave their home or work. This results in less need for days off, as well as significantly reduced travel costs and time. Additionally, the use of telemedicine has been shown to reduce wait times for patients while also improving communication with their provider. For these several reasons, patients often report a preference for telemedicine over more traditional in-person approaches.
Despite the very slow growth of telemedicine prior to 2020, the spread of COVID-19 has served as a major catalyst for the adoption of telemedicine throughout the United States. Though the future of telemedicine in the wake of COVID-19 depends largely on government policies such as insurance coverage, the countless advantages of the technology make it reasonable to say that telemedicine will likely play a large role.