Telemedicine :

Facetime Your Doctor

by Emma Zang-Schwartz

People Google everything — you know you’ve done it.  Even for things you probably know you shouldn’t, like how do I wrap a sprained ankle, what should I do to treat a fever or is that skin blemish cancerous. But, do you really know how dependable that information is? It is the Internet after all.  Sites like the Mayo Clinic or the CDC are probably pretty reliable, but then you still have to be sure that you found recommendations for exactly what is ailing you. “We are all so used to googling our symptoms these days, but it really only leads us down a rabbit hole,” explains Hope Yates, director of strategic partnerships at Maven, a healthcare and wellness app that provides on-demand video appointments. Thus, the field of telemedicine has emerged to help combat this worry.

This wide-ranging, developing branch of medicine ranges from using technology to exchange medical information from one site to another for improving a patient’s health to communicating using two-way video and email to smart phones and apps. Just as every other field has been figuring out the best way to incorporate new technologies into their practices, so has health care. “Right now, improved video technology and a desire to reduce healthcare costs are important drivers of telemedicine expansion,” explains Yates. “Many health and wellness needs can be addressed over telemedicine, including getting basic prescriptions.”

According to the American Telemedicine Association, “around the world, millions of patients use telemedicine to monitor their vital signs, remain healthy and out of hospitals and emergency rooms… Telemedicine is a significant and rapidly growing component of health care in the United States. There are currently about 200 telemedicine networks, with 3,500 service sites in the US. Nearly 1 million Americans are currently using remote cardiac monitors and in 2011, the Veterans Health Administration delivered over 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine. “

Telemedicine takes some of the guesswork out of diagnosing yourself with the Internet as your doctor. It is putting people in touch with doctors and licensed professionals from the comfort of their homes. “Telemedicine allows us to connect directly with providers to get personalized advice and support in a time-efficient and low-cost way,” says Yates. And, “makes it easier for women to take the best care of themselves and their families with the support of highly-vetted providers — without having to miss work, arrange for child care or spend a lot of money.”

Getting better information about topics for which you might not otherwise seek out professional guidance is another advantage. You can also set appointments with professionals ranging from physical therapist to psychologists. “For example, women can instantly book with a nutritionist to get advice on fueling her work day, with a women’s health nurse practitioner to get a birth control prescription or an antibiotic for a UTI, or with a lactation consultant to get breastfeeding support,” says Yates. “Many health and wellness needs can be addressed over telemedicine, including getting basic prescriptions.” This trend of telemedicine could help us all lead healthier lives.

“Studies have consistently shown that the quality of healthcare services delivered via telemedicine are as good as those given in traditional in-person consultations,” explains the American Telemedicine Association. “In some specialties, particularly in mental health and ICU care, telemedicine delivers a superior product, with greater outcomes and patient satisfaction.” Patients are receiving the same quality of care, or better, than they would ordinarily receive at a doctor’s office.

While the possibilities are exciting for those with ever more hectic lives, telemedicine also has applications in unstable locations or places without access to regular health care. And, in locations with few providers, telemedicine provides patients with options for doctors and specialists that they don’t have access to otherwise. All it takes is wi-fi connection and, voila, you can be connected to a medical provider who can suggest how best to take care of yourself.

Although many of us are not used to apps coming with a cost, it is important to keep in mind that telemedicine, while being provided through an app service, is still medical care.  That means they come with costs similar to what you would see in a doctor’s office. However, many ailments can be diagnosed or treatments recommended without a physician or without taking the full time of a standard doctor’s appointment. Nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants can refill annual prescription or offer advice for certain illnesses like a cold or an allergic reaction. This can lower costs and save time for everyone involved, especially if you don’t have to drive to their office.

There are many possible applications for telemedicine.

One of these is that you can access a specialist while you are with your primary care physician. This may mean instead of having to coordinate sending medical information from one doctor to another, you have the specialist talking with both you and your primary care physician via video link in an app.  It could be a collection of monitoring data in the app that you can then present to your doctor. Telemedicine is still a growing field and can be used in many ways to make your experiences progress more efficiently and smoothly.

While there are many advantages to telemedicine and people are on their phones constantly, they are not yet accustomed to using their phones to seek out medical advice. That is probably soon to change. “It’s new — people are not used to accessing healthcare through an app on their phone, and it can be hard to try new things, but it is the future. People can overcome this by trying it when they just have a question that they might otherwise Google so that they can have an experience with it and will be comfortable accessing care via telemedicine in the future,” says Yates.

There are many apps popping up with different specialties that make each one unique. Some, like Maven, are focused on women’s health, others, such as Pager based in New York, focus on getting doctors to your door, like a good old-fashioned house call. No matter what you need from a health care app, chances are that there is one out there able to help you.

Next time you are unsure of what to do when you are sick, consider turning to the app store to download a telemedicine app instead of just going to Google. The information will be more accurate and personalized to your needs, and it will be much easier than making an appointment and getting in the car to go see a doctor.