Four times each year, a new team of astronauts and cosmonauts are sent to the International Space Station. In most remote part of our world, monitoring the health of those onboard is a challenge. To overcome the distance, NASA utilizes telemedicine to manage the astronauts’ health. Preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic care is all enabled remotely by telemedicine.
The lessons learned from these experiences in space is having wide reaching implications in remote, underserved and developing areas of the globe. As technology and the internet become more accessible, so to does telemedicine, improving access to medical services that often would not be consistently available in distant rural communities. Studies from British Columbia, Ontario, and across the world, have shown the benefits of telemedicine.
Telemedicine is the use of video conferencing and other electronic equipment to provide access to specialized medical care remotely, no need travel required. A recent study from Canada Health Infoway found that telemedicine offers value to both the patient and the provider. Infoway, a Canadian federal non-profit whose mission it is to advance mobile health, worked with researchers from the University of British Columbia to study telemedicine in a rural setting. Clinicians and patients participated in video conferencing visits and rated their experiences.
The study found 79% of patients who had a virtual visit said the quality of care was the equal to that of an in-person visit. Furthermore, 91% of patients said the online visit helped them with the health issue for which they needed the appointment. The study found that patients who opt for virtual visits do so to save time, gain faster access to care, and avoid a work absence. Virtual visits enabled continuity of care for those in remote communities, due to the decreased travel burden. 13% of patients would not have gone to medical professionals if telemedicine was not available. Virtual visits also lessened wait times as well, decreasing walk-in and emergency visits.
In Ontario, the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) that has been researching ways to improve access to and quality of care since the late 1990’s. THey have found that telemedicine has been effective in reducing patient travel, reducing hospital admissions, and improving efficiency and prompt access to care. The use of telemedicine is accelerating in Ontario, and it is becoming an integral part of the health system. The use of telemedicine has improved access to medical care services, especially in sparsely populated regions of the province like Northern Ontario. Another study found similar benefits for obtaining pediatric mental health services in remote communities.
Other studies have examined the benefits of telemedicine for parents whose children require prolonged hospital stays. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found telemedicine to be a feasible and simple alternative, allowing for parents to be involved despite other demands, such as work, caring for other dependants, and limited access to transportation. The study found that patients were satisfied with the use of telemedicine, citing convenience and cost benefits, without compromising clinical results, as primary benefits. An Australian study echoed these findings. Telemedicine allowed children with disabilities to conduct routine visits via video conference, saving the costs and time of travel, thereby avoiding the difficulties of transporting patients with disabilities.
It is not just geographic and economic barriers that telemedicine can aid. For patients, Parkinson Disease telemedicine is showing benefits as well. Travel distance, growing disability and uneven distribution of doctors can limit access to care for most Parkinson’s Disease (PD) patients. Telemedicine can help overcome these barriers. In 2012, over 300,000 total patients and over 600 with movement disorders received care by telemedicine. Telemedicine can offer a patients a choice that’s convenient and/or a service that’s otherwise unavailable.
Telemedicine is still a growing section of the medical sector. It has shown promise in increasing access to care in remote and underserved areas. Multiple studies have shown a multitude of benefits, including savings in travel time, avoiding work absence and convenience. Parents of children that require consistent medical visits, patients with Parkinson’s Disease and patient who require access to mental health professionals in remote areas, have all seen benefits from telemedicine. As technology and internet access improves, telemedicine continues to change and improve. Realizing the potential of telemedicine will take time, policy changes and a willingness to experiment with new care and research models by patients, a wide range of providers and sponsors.
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