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 Jonathan 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 intensive-care units 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.
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.
—Jonathan D. Linkous, CEO, American Telemedicine Association
When the strength of that assessment depends on visual inspection, the technology can be particularly helpful. “The weak part of it is when you need to touch” to guide that assessment, Dr. Weiner says. That’s when the technology isn’t as useful. Still, he adds, “We use teleconferencing all over the place in a Skype-like manner, only more sophisticated. It’s more encrypted.”
Interacting within a secure network is crucial to protect privacy, says Peter Kragel, MD, clinical director of the Telemedicine Center at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C. As with any form of communication that transmits identifiable patient information, healthcare providers must comply with HIPAA guidelines when employing videoconferencing services similar to Skype.
“Because of concerns about compliance with encryption and confidentiality regulations, we do not use [videoconferencing] here,” Dr. Kragel says.
Additionally, “telemedicine isn’t always appropriate for patient care,” Linkous says. “All of this depends on the circumstances and needs of the patient. Obviously, surgery requires a direct physician-patient interaction, except for robotic surgery.” For hospitals that don’t have any neurology coverage, telemedicine robots can assist with outside consults for time-sensitive stroke care.
Videoconferencing isn’t necessary for all telemedicine encounters, Linkous says. Teledermatology and retinal screening use “store and forward” communication of images, which allows for the electronic transmission of images and documents in non-emergent situations in which immediate video isn’t necessary.
“As a society, we’ve become more comfortable with the technology,” says Matthew Harbison, MD, medical director of Sound Physicians hospitalist services at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston. “And as the technology continues to develop, ultimately there will be [more of] a role, but how large that will be is difficult to predict.” He adds that “the advantages are obviously in low-staffed places or staffing-challenged sites.”
As experts continue to iron out the kinks and as communities obtain greater access to broadband signals, telemedicine equipment is moving to advanced high-definition platforms. Meanwhile, the expense has come down considerably since its inception in the mid-1990s. A high-definition setup that once cost upward of $130,000 is now available for less than $10,000, Cattell-Gordon says.
The digital transmission also can assist in patient follow-up after discharge from the hospital and in monitoring various chronic diseases from home. It’s an effective tool for medical staff meetings and training purposes as well.
IPC’s hospitalists have been using the technology to communicate with each other, brainstorming across regions of the country. “Because we’re a national company,” Dr. Weiner says, “this has changed the game in terms of being able to collaborate.”
Susan Kreimer is a freelance medical writer based in New York.