Tech Takes Off: Videoconferences in medical settings is more acceptable and affordable, but hurdles remain

Picture this likely scenario: You’re a hospitalist in a remote setting, and a patient with stroke symptoms is rushed in by ambulance. Numbness has overcome one side of his body. Dizziness disrupts his balance, his speech becomes slurred, and his vision is blurred. Treatment must be started swiftly to halt irreversible brain damage. The nearest neurologist is located hours away, but thanks to advanced video technology, you’re able to instantly consult face to face with that specialist to help ensure optimal recovery for the patient.

Such applications of telemedicine are becoming more mainstream and affordable, facilitating discussions and decisions between healthcare providers while improving patient access to specialty care in emergencies and other situations.

Remote hospitalist services include videoconferencing for patient monitoring and assessment of various clinical services, says Jonavideo camthan D. Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association in Washington, D.C. About 60 specialities and subspecialties—from mental health to wound care—rely on telemedicine.

Advantages and Challenges

Remote patient monitoring in ICUs is on the upswing, filling gaps in the shortage of physicians specializing in critical care. Some unit administrators have established off-site command centers for these specialists to follow multiple facilities with the assistance of video technology and to intervene at urgent times.1

In a neonatal ICU, this type of live-feed technology allows for a face-to-face interaction with a pediatric pulmonologist, for example, when a premature infant is exhibiting symptoms of respiratory distress in the middle of the night, says David Cattell-Gordon, MSW, director of the Office of Telemedicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Similarly, in rural areas where women don’t have immediate access to high-risk obstetricians, telemedicine makes it possible to consult with maternal-fetal medicine specialists from a distance, boosting the chances for pregnant mothers with complex conditions to carry healthy babies to term, says Cattell-Gordon. “Our approach has been to bring telemedicine to hospitals and clinics in communities where that resource [specialists] otherwise is unavailable,” he adds.

As the technology continues to develop, ultimately there will be [more of] a role, but how large that will be is difficult to predict.

—Matthew Harbison, MD, medical director, Sound Physicians hospitalist services, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center

Compared with telephone conversations, the advantages of video consultations are multifold: They display a patient’s facial expressions, gestures, and other body language, which might assist with the diagnosis and prescribed treatment, says Kerry Weiner, MD, chief clinical officer for IPC: The Hospitalist Company in North Hollywood, Calif., which has a presence in about 900 facilities in 25 states.

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