In general, telemedicine can be defined as the remote delivery of healthcare using a mobile phone or tablet for internet access, in order to call or Skype with physicians, often across long distances. In the “old days,” when you got sick, you had the option of going to the doctor’s office or the emergency room. Now, in the Information Age, you can look up things with a symptom checker, then consult with a physician online or through a phone call.
There are two general use cases for telemedicine, although this number will rapidly increase as more experience is gained. The first is for low-acuity situations, such as a minor cut — something transient that’s affecting your health. With a teleconsult visit, you can discuss symptoms with a physician, who can make a clinical diagnosis, tell you whether your condition is serious or not, and give you a treatment plan.
The second use case is more like a typical checkup, for a chronic condition such as heart disease or diabetes. For a basic checkup on the trajectory of a patient’s health, for example, when only another prescription is needed, a face-to-face interaction is not required.
Convenience and low cost are good reasons for healthcare organizations and their patients to embrace telemedicine. But for telemedicine to become more widely used, three things need to happen:
- Increased specialization. Telemedicine has become more of a commodity, and to make it less commoditized, it has to become more specialized. For example, if someone has kidney problems, that patient should be able to talk to a kidney expert. A specialist can pick up on things that a primary care doctor wouldn’t.
- Increased automation. To scale up these specialists, some type of automation is needed. Not everyone has a life-threatening situation, so artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to triage workflow and provide answers to simple questions. When we start specializing, much can be accomplished through business process automation. Having that type of automation as part of the decision tree before it gets to a human will be important.
- Maintain the human touch. In his 1982 book Megatrends, John Naisbitt discusses a principle called “high tech, high touch” that points out the need for striking a balance between technology and human interaction. This concept has to be used as a guide when redesigning healthcare services. However any system is built out — including a telemedicine practice — the more technology that is used, the more you need to figure out how to empower patients. Otherwise, we will get to a point where people don’t like the service and don’t want to use it.
Maintaining this level of human interaction is a key to telemedicine’s success. We always need to make sure people are being taken care of. Still, the real issue is what telemedicine is used for and how it fits within a coordinated care plan. Hospitals have to offer choice and value, but that also means looking at their clinical and technological resources to help determine how they can most effectively allocate those resources.
Telemedicine allows healthcare organizations to offer different services at different price points so that people can get the care they need. Going forward, telemedicine will be one of the primary tools used to determine how we treat patients efficiently, while remaining a safe haven for care in the communities we serve.