The Past, Present and Future of Video Telemedicine

Cameron Smith
July 27, 2017

Flying cars, floating cities, robotic maids – 100 years ago, people had a very different idea of what today would look like. Much of these speculated advancements never came to pass.

One radical technology, however, they did get right.

What was once conceptualized as doctor house calls done via radio waves is now possible. Today, video telemedicine lets healthcare professionals practice remotely over the internet.

But why have people been dreaming of it for a century?

Telemedicine is on the cutting edge of a healthcare revolution, one which seeks to provide better care to more people in less time.

With video conferencing, the healthcare industry is addressing systemic problems it simply was unable to address even a couple of decades ago.

Telemedicine: A Brief History

The definition of telemedicine is pretty simple. Merriam-Webster describes it as:

“The practice of medicine when the doctor and patient are widely separated using two-way voice and visual communication (as by satellite or computer).”

But it doesn’t have to be computers and satellites. One of the earliest examples of telemedicine in action is smoke signals. African villagers would light fires and create smoke to warn travelers and other villages about an outbreak of disease before they could get to the village and contract the illness.

These visual cues were an effective means of preventative healthcare. As technology advanced, so did the scope of telemedicine’s role in healthcare.

From hand-cranked radios signaling aerial doctors in Australia to auto-dialing phones that call an emergency line during respiratory failure, telemedicine has come a long way since its inception.

The Value of Video Conferencing in Telemedicine

The latest era of telehealthcare is being driven by cloud video conferencing technology.

The ability for medical professionals to communicate with patients in an interactive and high-definition way has revolutionized the ability to treat individuals remotely.

Telemedicine pic 1

A doctor in Mexico has a pre-op consultation with a patient 400 miles away. (Intel Free Press)

A doctor in Mexico has a pre-op consultation with a patient 400 miles away. (Intel Free Press)

Previous drawbacks of telemedicine have traditionally come from the technological limitations of the era. While smoke signals were great at letting other villages know there was a disease, it hardly helped a doctor diagnose it.

Similarly, even though video conferencing’s been around since the 90’s, the quality wasn’t good enough to be a useful tool in the arsenal of most doctors. Video frame rates were so low and laggy, and internet connection so inconsistent, that a phone call would have been more practical.

Consider something as simple as a checkup for an unexpected rash, with the patient describing over the phone, “It’s, uh, red?”

Tough to lend an accurate diagnosis there.

But imagine the same scenario, this time have the patient showing the rash over video. A quick visual scan from a savvy doctor could sort it out seconds.

Enter modern video telemedicine. With a high-definition camera capable of rendering visuals in real time, a doctor or nurse can provide a patient with advice without them ever leaving their house.

In WIRED’s article, “Video Is About to Become the Way We All Visit the Doctor”, the largest health insurer in the United States considers telemedicine “on par with a regular trip to the doctor’s office, effectively saying a video visit is as good as brick-and-mortar medicine.”

Just think of the traffic burden lifted from family doctors and emergency rooms.

For example, parents rushing their child to the emergency room with a case of mystery hives only to have it end with nothing more than a doctor’s recommendation for Benadryl.

With the power of video telemedicine, these trips will become no more.

What’s Telemedicine Being Used for Now?

As the adoption of telemedicine grows, so does its number of uses for patients and healthcare professionals.

For some, telemedicine may seem like a simple convenience to speak with a doctor at home instead of popping by the office. For others, it’s much more than that.

More Access to Medical Attention: For individuals living in rural communities, a simple trip to a doctor’s office or hospital may not be as simple as a quick drive down the road. Many live in very inaccessible areas, hours away from medical attention.

Access is also a critical issue for patients with mobility issues, such as senior citizens. With many forms of travel posing a challenge, finding ways to make regular checkups easier is extremely important.

Video telemedicine has offered a new avenue for connecting those in need of healthcare with medical professionals, effectively making house calls a reality again for patients without access to a doctor otherwise.

This is especially true for specialized healthcare, where access is further reduced. Right now, one of the most notable applications of video telemedicine is in stroke and neurology.

With video conferencing, people can connect with neurology professionals in minutes for regular checkups. These appointments are crucial to the well-being of patients coping with brain illness, and were frequently difficult to attend before the rise in telemedicine.

Telestroke and teleneurology services are at the forefront of providing accessible medicine to everyone.

Reduced Wait Times, Increased Patient Capacity: Right now, many consider there to be a crisis in healthcare. Too many people pack the waiting rooms of ERs and clinics, while there’s not enough beds for people to access.

As many cry for additional hospitals to be built, more funding, and an increase in doctors and nurses, others propose a simpler solution: telemedicine.

Much of the waiting room crowd are there simply to have their fears of illness relieved by a professional. If a doctor was able to give advice and even a diagnosis over video, these patients would never need to enter the waiting room, thinning the crowd.

And what about beds? Right now, many hospitals are filled with people not only suffering from physical illness, but mental illness as well. This requires them to be frequently checked in with, and have access to consultation.

By applying it this way, video telemedicine is helping to reduce the stress on the healthcare industry, and open beds and waiting rooms for the patients who truly need them.

Connecting and Educating Healthcare Professionals: One way video conferencing is shaping multiple industries is through its ability to connect people and facilitate knowledge transfers.

In healthcare, access to specialists and consultations is extremely important.

For patients who require diverse care, the ability to consult with multiple specialists is extremely valuable.

chinese doctors

Doctors in China share information via video conferencing. WikiMedia

Consider this: With video conferencing, it’s like a patient always has access to the expertise of the top professional in the branch of medicine they need. This isn’t constrained by distance or time – even if the doctor is half-way around the world, their knowledge is still a click away.

Not only can doctors and other healthcare workers use video conferencing for consultations and knowledge transfers, they can train up-and-coming medical professionals.

Imagine the value of being able to record procedures and share them with students anywhere. Hundreds of attendees can participate simultaneously – far more than could pack into an operating room.

One huge benefit of telemedicine is its ability to keep costs down so budgets can be allocated to more urgent healthcare areas.

Before video telemedicine, connecting experts, teaching students, and receiving specialized information would have exorbitant travel costs.

Video conferencing provides an affordable and sustainable solution, while developing a well-informed and connected healthcare community.

The Future of Telemedicine

When those African tribespeople sent up smoke signals to warn off travelers from their disease-ridden village, they had no conception of what telemedicine would become.

But by the 1920’s, our forebears began to have a clearer vision – even if they still didn’t have the technology to act upon it.

Now, the fantastic imaginings of a healthcare revolution are coming to pass. High-definition, real-time video conferencing technology is improving care, reducing wait times and freeing up space in over-crowded hospitals.

But where to from here?

While we can’t predict exactly how technology will evolve, but we can say with great certainty it will. And with this evolution, advancements in video conferencing will further serve to help the healthcare industry.

Perhaps one day we will look back at our current video conferencing telemedicine the same way we currently look back at smoke signals and hand-cranked radios. It will seem quaint and simple compared to the future power of telemedicine.

In the meantime, it’s imperative that medical professionals start pursuing tools at their disposal to augment the healthcare they are able to provide.

Video conferencing-powered telemedicine is the first step.