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Telemedicine: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters


Telemedicine is one of the key components at the heart of patient care revolution.

Access to healthcare sets the baseline for all patient interactions with healthcare providers. Patients want to be able to access healthcare when they want and need it. When patients can’t access physicians, it becomes impossible for them to receive medical care and achieve overall patient wellness.

Even though access to healthcare is paramount in promoting and maintaining overall patient wellness, patient care access is not a reality for many patients. Transportation problems have been cited as a major barrier to healthcare access. Lack of structured communication mechanisms has also been identified as one of the major barriers to healthcare access. These barriers often lead to missed or rescheduled appointments, delayed or missed medication use, and delayed healthcare.

To overcome these barriers, healthcare providers are not only extending their office hours, but they are also utilizing health IT to enable patients to access care without needing to come into the office. Are you a physician who strives to improve the services you provide? Let’s talk telemedicine.

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is a practice of medicine that involves the delivery of health-related information and services via telecommunications technology. It makes it easy to overcome barriers to healthcare access, as physicians are able to use technology to deliver care to patients living in distant locations. Telemedicine is different from telehealth in that it refers to a narrower scope of remote healthcare services than telehealth. Telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, while telehealth refers broadly to both remote clinical and non-clinical services.

While telemedicine has become a buzzword recently, the idea of delivering healthcare services using technology was born over 100 years ago. Many references (including this one) refer to an 1879 article in the Lancet that talked about using the telephone to minimize unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office. The following are the years where notable achievements in telemedicine were attained:

  • 1948: First radiologic images were sent via telephone across 24 miles in eastern Pennsylvania
  • 1958: The University of Nebraska transmitted neurological examinations using interactive telemedicine
  • 1959: Canadian radiologist reports diagnostic consultations based on fluoroscopy images transmitted via coaxial cable
  • 1960: Telemedicine became a form of healthcare delivery
  • 1970: A remote monitoring system capable of providing healthcare delivery was created
  • 1980: Radiologists started using teleradiology systems to receive images for telemedicine consultations
  • 1990: The advent of the internet offered support for practically all information and traffic that was needed for telemedicine
  • 2017: 76 percent of U.S. hospitals reported having connected with patients and practicing practitioners [remotely]() via video and other technology

Today, the impact of coronavirus on the healthcare industry has accelerated the shift toward telehealth beyond even the most ambitious projections. Not only are private players embracing coverage for many telehealth services, but almost every state Medicaid program also features some form of coverage for telehealth services.

How Does Telemedicine Work?

In most cases, telemedicine involves the use of a toll-free phone number or an online account. Patients request a visit, submit basic information on their health condition, and then the doctor either accepts or declines the visit, or schedules an appointment.

There are three distinct ways in which telemedicine is transforming the healthcare system.

Telemedicine increases access to physicians

When a new patient requests an appointment, how long must he/she wait to have a face-to-face consultation with a doctor? The answer, according to data from Aetna Health, is that new patients wait for about 2.7 weeks after calling for their first appointment. Wait times, however, vary from one specialty to another, with in-demand specialties taking much longer.

With growing shortages of specialists in rural areas, telemedicine significantly minimizes the waiting period for expert diagnosis and treatment. Patients can get access to physicians during late nights, weekdays, holidays, or any other days when physicians may not be available.

Patients’ electronic records can be forwarded to a specialist whose office is located anywhere in the country, and an accompanying virtual consultation can be scheduled. This makes telemedicine very beneficial, especially in urgent or potentially life-threatening situations, and when access to regular healthcare is not possible due to bad weather conditions, traffic jams, etc.

2. Telemedicine reduces healthcare costs

Many small hospitals situated in rural areas cannot afford on-staff specialists. As such, they have to transport gravely ill patients to larger facilities. This process not only creates additional health risks, but also leads to high healthcare costs as patients move from one healthcare facility to another.

Telecommunication, on the other hand, enables patients to obtain expert advice from the comfort of their homes. During virtual consultations, patients can receive expert diagnosis and immediate treatment so that no additional doctor visits are required for non-serious conditions. As for serious conditions, patients are advised to go to the E.R immediately. In addition to minimizing health risks associated with transporting gravely ill patients, telemedicine also cuts healthcare costs.

3. Telemedicine improves health outcomes

For people with serious health conditions, early warnings are only helpful if they lead to immediate action. With traditional healthcare systems that have longer wait times, it might be too late before patients with serious health conditions are attended to.

The good thing about telemedicine is that healthcare providers can remotely monitor their patient data and discover potential problems. They can then contact their patients and recommend immediate treatment. Therefore, the healthcare delivery offered through these early interventions can lead to improved health outcomes.

As more patients realize the convenience, cost-savings, and improved health outcomes associated with telemedicine, they are increasingly choosing physicians that have implemented this technology. The more patients a physician’s office attracts, the more revenue the physician gets to collect.

Though a great and worthy service, telemedicine has its shortcomings. The following are the cons of telemedicine:

It’s costly to set up and maintain the telecommunication infrastructure. This makes it untenable for smaller healthcare facilities and individual physicians who are just starting their practice.

Since telemedicine allows for remote diagnosis and treatment, it denies patients a chance to personally meet and bond with their primary care givers. For physicians and patients that prefer face-to-face consultations, this model might not be ideal.

While telemedicine enables physicians to remotely diagnose and treat their patients, not all patients can benefit. For instance, certain health conditions require physical assessment and treatment.

Telemedicine jobs, apps, and companies

Embarking on a career in telemedicine is a rather easy transition to make from practicing conventional medicine. One of the key benefits that physicians who work in telemedicine get to enjoy is the convenience of being your own boss.

Pursuing a career in telemedicine is also beneficial in the sense that it offers flexibility to work for multiple companies at the same time. This is due to the fact that many telehealth companies do not have non-compete clauses for independent contractors. As such, you can work with several companies and find out what you like best.

As telemedicine gains momentum, many technology companies have created telemedicine apps to facilitate patient-physician consultations. Some of the best telemedicine apps include:

  • MD Live: MD Live offers fast and convenient access to a physician for non-emergency issues.
  • Lemonaid: Lemonaid offers a simple way to get expert diagnosis and same-day delivery from the Lemonaid Pharmacy.
  • Doctor On Demand: Doctor On Demand enables both insured and uninsured patients to consult with licensed physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists.

Key takeaways

Whether you’re looking to establish your own practice or are looking for supplemental income, exploring a career in telehealth might be a perfect move. The good thing about practicing telemedicine is that the pay isn’t usually affected by where the physician resides, but by where they are licensed. As such, physicians are advised to get licensed in as many states as possible.