Scientific and technological advances have transformed modern health care through countless innovations in drugs and surgical procedures, but they have also made a lasting impact on another, less publicized area: the way physicians administer care across distance boundaries.
Telemedicine, defined as the exchange of medical information via electronic communication, is re-shaping the way we think about everything from house calls to emergency room visits. In this week’s Kentucky Health, host Dr. Wayne Tuckson interviews a leading expert on telemedicine, who talks about the latest advances in the field.
Dr. Reed Tuckson, M.D., is president of the American Telemedicine Association and has more than 35 years of experience as a health care executive and consultant. He is Wayne Tuckson’s brother, and they are the sons of the late Dr. Coleman Tuckson, a longtime professor of dentistry at Howard University.
According to Dr. Reed Tuckson, the practice of telemedicine may have originally been associated with the telephone and videoconferencing, but nowadays it is being transformed by new forms of wireless and broadband technology. In particular, innovations in telemedicine are driven by the near-ubiquitous use of smartphones. Human beings in contemporary society prefer smartphones as their portals to the outside world, Dr. Tuckson observes. This opens up a world of possibilities for administering health care in an instantaneous, interactive, fashion.
A “Fertile Environment for Innovation”
Dr. Tuckson says that patients’ concerns about having access to care and about being able to afford care can be alleviated through telemedicine. He points out that there are parts of the United States – including many regions in Kentucky – where access to a doctor is limited and requires travel. Telemedicine, he states, is “agnostic to geographical boundaries,” and its application can be beneficial to both patients and hospital staffs in rural areas.
“A patient may come into a small hospital with a stroke,” Dr. Tuckson says, by way of example. “We know that the requirements for managing a stroke are to intervene on that person immediately, with the right therapy….. Now there are practitioners of telehealth who are specialists in stroke management, and they may sit in a room that looks like an air traffic control tower. And they provide guidance to smaller hospitals that don’t have expert neurologists or neurosurgeons on staff right at that particular moment.”
Through advances in telemedicine, these long-distance experts “can provide the professional and clinical staff at that hospital with immediate guidance,” Dr. Tuckson says. “That’s occurring now all over the country,” he adds, and across numerous specialties, ranging from dermatology to ophthalmology.
Moreover, Dr. Tuckson notes that the constant spiraling of health care expenditures has led leaders in the field to explore ways to provide high-quality services at reduced costs. Using telemedicine can often relocate medical treatment from the hospital to a less expensive venue, such as the patient’s home, and thus lessen costs. “When you take these factors that are providing momentum, that creates a fertile environment for innovation,” he says.
Improving Access, Maintaining Quality
Even if more and more medical diagnoses and treatments occur via telemedicine, Dr. Tuckson concedes that hands-on physicians will always be needed, especially in underserved areas such as rural Kentucky. He regards telemedicine as a “supplementary, and in some ways augmentative” resource to a modern, comprehensive health care practice.
In recent years, medical professionals have taken steps to create a nationwide protocol for electronic medical recordkeeping. Dr. Tuckson says that reaching this goal is crucial for improving telemedicine services. This way, a patient’s care can be managed consistently based on portable data, no matter if he or she is at a nearby clinic, a rehabilitation facility 100 miles away, or even communicating long-distance with a specialist via Skype.
Dr. Tuckson says that many doctors, medical companies, hospitals, and insurers are well aware of the better care and lower costs associated with telemedicine, and have set up payment plans to help patients. Eliminating distance boundaries does require state medical boards to become more vigilant and thorough when licensing telehealth physicians, however. The American Telemedicine Association has developed a set of best practices for these providers, and also provides accreditation services.
Telemedicine services will continue to expand, Dr. Tuckson believes. He envisions a time when patients may regularly be treated by doctors several time zones – or even, potentially, several continents – away.
In Dr. Tuckson’s opinion, the most exciting innovation for telemedicine lies within the incredibly complex smartphones people carry. He notes that the high-res cameras integrated into smartphones give people the ability to send pictures of symptoms or injuries to doctors or clinics in an instant, no matter their location.
For this technology to reach its full potential, though, the United States must improve public access to high-speed broadband Internet, Dr. Tuckson says. He urges all viewers to contact their members of Congress and push for full implementation of President Barack Obama’s Community Based Broadband Solutions initiative. This initiative lays out the economic benefits of having a nationwide broadband network, and Dr. Tuckson believes that telemedicine certainly is among them.
“Broadband does not have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ associated with it,” he says. “Let’s just get better access to broadband technology.”