The doctor will see you now—and all you need is a WiFi connection.

For both emergencies and run-of-the-mill checkups, telemedicine is bridging the gap between providers and patients with a virtual alternative to conventional doctor or hospital visits. The evolution of interconnected audio-visual technology is changing the nature of communication across the healthcare landscape. 

“There’s a huge potential for telemedicine to be used in just about any situation you can think of where you need to connect a patient and a provider who are not in the same place,” said Dr. Kathleen Webster, division director of pediatric critical care at Loyola University Medical Center, where telemedicine is used regularly.

While not a replacement for going to the doctor, telemedicine can be an attractive option for physicians and their patients who value the technology’s efficiency and practicality.

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What Is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine refers to virtual technologies that allow patients and providers to communicate, mainly through video conferences. Its uses range from routine examinations to life-saving, split-second evaluations.   

Webster has seen firsthand just how useful telemedicine can be. She recalls a time when, on the way to the hospital for a regular work day, she received a page about a child who had gone into cardiac arrest in the ICU. Instead of taking 20 to 30 minutes to drive to the hospital, Webster guided the child’s resuscitation on her laptop, then called a partner to supervise while she drove to the hospital.

Telemedicine, Webster said, made for a much faster response, and a much safer procedure than would have occurred without the virtual consultation. 

It’s especially helpful in an environment like the pediatric care unit, where doctors must be able to evaluate a child’s health needs at all times—even at night when some doctors have gone home—and get a second medical opinion. With a quick page, doctors can go online and assess the situation no matter where they are. 

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Telemedicine Gaining Popularity

Convenience is a major factor contributing to the growth of telemedicine. Healthcare systems, such as Mercy Health in St. Louis, Mo., are banking on the appeal of virtual visits with a $50 million telemedicine expansion in the form of a virtual care center.

The ease of making an appointment without leaving home or scheduling time off is a boon for busy patients, especially families with children and people with irregular work hours.

Telemedicine can also level the playing field for people without reliable access to high quality medical care. People living in rural areas far from hospitals can benefit from virtual care from doctors in high-tech facilities in large metropolitan areas.

Some schools and child care centers have also taken advantage of the trend, with the help of organizations such as University of Rochester Medical Center’s Health-e-Access telemedicine network.

Preventative Health

The time between visits is critical for patient health, but rarely gets the attention it deserves. This interim period can be a time when patients shirk their personal healthcare responsibilities, and understandably, communicate less with their doctors. Telemedicine, however, can encourage patients to keep up with their health regimens.

When the Louisiana-based Ochsner Health System used health technology company TeleVox's communication system to reach patients at risk for colon cancer, the hospital increased its colorectal cancer screenings by 18 percent. The personalized interaction outside the hospital, through emails, text messages, and phone calls, alerted patients to medical concerns and kept them on top of their health habits.

"We are in the business of engagement communication," said Allison Hart, senior director of the Healthy World Initiative at TeleVox. "We’re about making that crucial communication between providers and patients to get them healthy and keep them healthy." 

Many people use these technologies on a regular basis, which could sway even skeptical patients to embrace telemedicine. 

"It's amazing how simple the technology is," Hart said. "People always assume this must be very high tech, but... it's very easy for patients to interact with." 

Room to Grow

Telemedicine has made its way into many medical facilities, but it can never totally eclipse in-person visits. Emergency situations aside, even a checkup could require an in-person follow-up if the provider decides that a health concern warrants a more in-depth assessment.

Another critical concern is Internet security: as telemedicine grows, so do the threats to health care systems’ cyber security.

“The important thing to remember is to use telemedicine in the proper way and to make sure we're using [online] venues that have proper encryption and proper security in place,” Webster said.  

But with the prospect of lower costs, streamlined exams, and greater patient access, telemedicine is quickly becoming a standard tool for healthcare providers.