How Telemedicine Can Improve the Patient Experience
January 27, 2016 | By Venessa Peña-Robichaux, MD
What is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the use of telecommunications technology to provide care across a distance. This includes using the Internet, cell phones, SMS messaging and even satellites to allow physicians and patients to communicate medical information. This technology has been available for over decade now, but as it has gotten better and better, telemedicine has now become much more available, easy to use, and secure. If used in the right way, it is one of the best ways that we can improve access to care.
Because dermatology is a very visual field and a specialty in high demand, patient access is often challenged by long wait times. Telemedicine or “teledermatology” can be a great way to provide patients with increased access to dermatologists. Teledermatology involves the use of real-time video streaming, or more commonly the transmission of still images/pictures, in combination with a patient’s medical information collected via questionnaire. Teledermatology can be utilized in many ways including physician-to-physician consultations, triage, follow-up care, and patient education.
Benefits of Telemedicine for Patients
As discussed above, one of the biggest benefits of telemedicine is its ability to increase access to health care by providing a convenient way to connect physicians and patients. This is especially beneficial for patients who live in rural areas and have to drive great distances to be seen by a dermatologist or other specialist. In addition, telemedicine is a way that patients and physicians can keep in communication long after an in-office appointment. In many situations, follow-up care can be provided in this manner. Physicians can also use telemedicine to further educate a patient regarding his or her medical condition and associated medications. This level of access also help physicians keep patients engaged in their care which can often lead to improved outcomes.
Telemedicine can also be a great tool to help doctors determine if a patient needs to be seen more urgently. For example, in dermatology one of the most urgent diagnoses to make is melanoma – a potentially fatal type of skin cancer. For these patients, the sooner they can be seen and the earlier the cancer can be detected, the better the outcome. Telemedicine can provide a way for a dermatologist to review a picture of a questionable mole prior to a patient’s appointment (which often may be scheduled for a few months out) so they can make an assessment and decide whether the patient needs to be seen sooner.
Another advantage of telemedicine for patients is its overall convenience. For many who work during the week it can be difficult to get away for a health care appointment. Telemedicine provides a way for patients to receive care on their own time, which can sometimes provide a cost savings such as the costs of travel time away from work. In addition, with new high deductible health insurance plans one visit to a physician’s office can often cost more than a telemedicine visit.
Best Ways to Use Telemedicine
Telemedicine should be utilized in ways that benefit both the patient and physician. It is therefore best used as a tool for physicians to more efficiently care for their existing patients. Although there are telemedicine platforms in existence that allow physicians to provide care to patients they have never seen in person before, this can sometimes pose a risk to both the physician and patient given that a prior relationship has not been established. Having an established patient-physician relationship before providing care via telemedicine is important because it means that the physician is aware of the patient’s medical history and ongoing issues. For the patient, it is reassuring to know that it is their own physician providing their medical care over the internet. In addition, in some states it is currently prohibited for physicians to provide medical care to patients via telemedicine without a prior in person evaluation by a physician.
As mentioned above, telemedicine is also a good way to provide care for patients who otherwise have trouble getting access to certain healthcare providers.
Taking all of this into account I believe telemedicine is best used:
- When there is an established patient-physician relationship
- To allow access to care for patients who live in rural or other underserved areas
- As a way to provide follow-up care for patients with low risk medical conditions
- For physicians to offer patient education and support
- To assess the urgency of a patient’s situation (triage)
When Telemedicine Should NOT Be Used
There are many telemedicine companies in existence that offer their services to patients and physicians. It is important to realize that telemedicine is not always the best method with which to receive medical care.
Telemedicine should NOT be used:
- As the only method to deliver care during a medical emergency
- As the only method of assessment in any cases where a patient may have a life threatening or high-risk condition
- By physicians who are not familiar with or do not have access to a patient’s medical history
Telemedicine is slowly becoming an integral part of the way physicians care for their patients. We are especially starting to see this in the field of dermatology. It’s important to realize that although telemedicine does not always provide the same level of care as an in-person visit, there is a role for this mode of healthcare delivery. Using telemedicine to communicate in the right scenarios and for the right types of patients can lead to an improved patient care experience, and often a cost savings.