The term ‘telemedicine’ which was first coined in the 1970s, should not sound foreign to us in this digital era. However, in this day and age where almost everyone owns a smart mobile device, many have yet to come into contact with such service.
So, what exactly is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is defined by the WHO (World Health Organization) as
The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities
Long story short, it means that health care services are delivered through a distance, be it for diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention.
Telemedicine is currently put into action by many healthcare facilities all around the world where patients and their healthcare professionals communicate with each other via telecommunication.
The forms of telemedicine
Telemedicine first started in the early to late 20th century, where ECGs (Electrocardiograms which are graphs of a persons’ heart electrical activity) were transmitted through telephone wires. It was then further developed into the use of voice and video conference between doctors and patients.
With the internet and the mass availability and affordability of personal mobile smart devices, it has widened the possibilities of telemedicine and extended its reach to more people. Currently, many hospitals use at least some forms of telemedicine, while many start-up companies are thriving by providing healthcare solutions to patients through telemedicine.
Telemedicine brings about many benefits to patients such as
- Convenience. Telemedicine allows patients to access healthcare almost anywhere at any time as long as telecommunication is available. This is especially useful for people staying in suburban and rural localities or where transport is a problem. Furthermore, this saves patients the trouble of traveling, searching for parking and queueing to see the healthcare providers.
- Time saving. On top of convenience, not having to travel, search for parking and queue, saves time as well.
- Cost saving. Telemedicine not only saves travelling costs, the cost of consultation with a healthcare professional is generally lower than that of an in-clinic visit.
- Environment friendly. A study actually found that telemedicine actually reduces carbon dioxide emissions making it environmental friendly.
Even though there are many benefits, there are also limitations with telemedicine
- Complicated cases. Although useful for simple cases such as cold, allergies and common rashes, complicated cases will still require a visit to the doctor’s office for a more thorough check-up.
- Insurance. Depending on situation, most insurance companies in Malaysia do not cover the costs of telemedicine.
- Decrease continuity of care. In certain cases, telemedicine may assign different doctors to patients depending on availability at that particular point of time. This may hinder the continuity of care, where the same doctor or healthcare professional continues to see the same patient which permits a better understanding of patients’ condition hence a better treatment can be given.
Is it suitable for me?
Yes, definitely if the situation is appropriate. If you have a minor ailment, by all means connect to your healthcare provider through telemedicine, which will save you not only time, money and also provide you the comfort of not leaving your home. Furthermore, if you have questions on health that you would like to verify, for example questions on the medication you’re taking, or certain lab results that you don’t understand, this will save you a trip down to your doctor’s office.
The tricky part is when you have a complicated case. If the situation is dire, go to see your healthcare professional as soon as possible. If it’s not an urgent case, but nonetheless, the case is complicated, you may consider consulting a healthcare profession on telemedicine if you need advice on what sort of additional care you need, or if you need a specialist referral, which type of specialist should you see. This will save cost from seeing a particular specialist only to realize that he/she is not the right kind of specialist for your condition.
Other conditions such as chronic (long-term) illness (e.g. diabetes or high blood pressure), you will still need to see your doctor in person for a check-up and run lab tests every once in a while, depending on the situation. However, telemedicine may still play a role in monitoring the condition in-between these check-ups to better manage the disease.
Telemedicine is NOT a replacement for traditional in-clinic medicine. Nothing will be able to replace a doctor’s touch and the careful examinations of a doctor. What telemedicine provides is a layer of comfort, accessibility and cost-savings in situations where you do not have to see the doctor in person.
- Dullet, N., Geraghty, E., Kaufman, T., Kissee, J., King, J., Dharmar, M., Smith, A. and Marcin, J. (2017). Impact of a University-Based Outpatient Telemedicine Program on Time Savings, Travel Costs, and Environmental Pollutants. Value in Health, 20(4), pp.542-546.
- World Health Organization (2010). Telemedicine: Opportunities and developments n Member States. Global Observatory for eHealth. Geneva: WHO.
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