According to some, the first telemedicine application was a transmission between West Chester and Philadelphia in 1948. Radiological images were shared via telephone over a distance of 24 miles. Fast forward to today and find the well established Ontario Telemedicine Network as one of many that pop up in search results.
So telemedicine is definitely taking root. This means that at least some progress toward overcoming the challenges surrounding its use must have been made:
- Cost. This one is the most obvious. I suspect this is less of an issue now that the price of technology (especially bandwidth) has decreased so much over the years. Still, we tend to always want to come up with something bigger, better, faster; the costs can't be falling too quickly as we move ahead like this.
- Evaluation. We need a good way to evaluate the quality of health care that is achieved from using telemedicine. Are patients faring better, and if so, how much? Enough to justify the cost?
- Digitization. Patient records are not only on paper, but often scattered about several hospitals or doctor's offices. For telemedicine to realize its full potential, these records should be consolidated into one electronic database.
- Security. Digital patient records obviously need to be kept secure and confidential.
- Legalities. Consider problems like this one: Suppose there is a physician licensed to practice in, say, Ontario, but not British Columbia (I don't even know if that is how it works here in Canada, but bear with me anyway). She works from her office in Ontario, but treats a patient in B.C. with the help of telemedicine. Is this legal?
- HCI. In many cases, patients would be required to interact directly with technologies they may not be familiar with. Designing devices that are easy enough for, say, seniors to use comfortably in their homes is certainly a challenge.
- Telecommunications. While things have improved dramatically in this regard since that first telemedicine communication in the 40's, we still can't push high quality video and audio across the country in real time.
As the author of an article entitled Telemedicine in Africa: potential, problems, priorities puts it: "Up and running and paid for, it would be wonderful, of course. One envisages a novel form of continuing education for medical personnel, new possibilities for long-distance consultation with specialists, rapid image-rich exchanges of knowledge and ideas." The article then goes on to outline all the reasons why this probably isn't possible, or even the right thing to do right now, citing the more fundamental needs for potable water, reliable electricity, and basic education.
Still, I have read articles (like this one) that have shown successful applications of telemedicine on a smaller scale. For instance, a project in Mozambique made use of low-cost teleradiology equipment and a digital microwave transmission link between two hospitals. This allowed patients to have specialists to examine their radiological images from a distance. So I do have hope that the technology of telemedicine could help improve the lives of many Africans, even now.
Now that I've tugged on your heart strings a bit, let's bring our attention back home again. Here in Canada, many residents are concerned about unreasonably long wait times. Sure, politicians continue to say they are working to improve the situation, but things just seem to keep getting worse. Since allowing some private health care clinics take the load off the public system isn't an option for many, and since the baby boomers are rapidly reaching retirement age, we need some new ideas. Here's where I think telemedicine could help.
One of the reasons for the problem is the shortage of health care workers. Telemedicine may help alleviate the pressure by enabling those we have to see more patients in a given span of time. Instead of traveling between hospitals and even cities, specialists could work from one central location and consult patients via video conferencing. Patients could visit satellite clinics in their own hometown with somebody trained to use the equipment and collect data needed.
The shortage of hospital beds seems to be another large problem. If patients that need relatively minimal monitoring are taking up space in hospitals, perhaps they and their monitoring could be moved to the home. The OTN has a whole section on Telehomecare, showing that it's possible to bring equipment to the patient even today.
I'm sure this is just the beginning of the potential uses of telemedicine might have in tomorrow's world. I know I will be watching its progress as I age, with hope that it might play a role in improving our health care situation.