Is Telemedicine Making Healthcare Less Human?

Possibly yes, probably no, says the CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.

Telemedicine –remote consultation with doctors via Skype or apps that send and receive test results – is often touted as a cutting edge innovation, a novel and digital-age solution to the problems plaguing healthcare since Hippocrates coined the phrase: ‘First, do no harm.’

In the early 1990s, physicians came to Jonathon Linkous, who worked in the telecommunications industry at the time, to ask how they could utilize this burgeoning thing called ‘the Internet’ in remote healthcare. He realized that telecommunications in medicine was an area with potential, so he went on to help found the American Telemedicine Association of which he is the CEO today.

Telemedicine is now commonly used to keep healthcare costs low, and physicians safe when treating prison inmates. It has been shown to be effective for treating depression, and may even help prevent a pandemic.

But in the ATA’s 20th year, we wondered whether telemedicine has helped to democratize healthcare and empower patients, or whether it has changed patient-to-doctor communication into patient-to-robot interactions. Has telemedicine humanized or dehumanized modern day medicine? Here’s what Linkous had to say:

Q: What exactly is telemedicine?

A: When you talk about telemedicine, you have to realize it’s a tool that can be used in so many different ways. It could be a physician providing a consultation to a patient in a rural and remote area using video conferencing, but if it’s a consumer who downloaded a mobile app to track his blood sugar levels – that’s a whole different thing.

Q: So what’s the difference between the two? Are apps taking a human out of the equation in a way that teleconferencing isn’t?

A: They could be, but it all depends. Let’s say you have high blood pressure, and you need to take your readings on a regular basis. There are applications that will remind you and then track your blood pressure readings. The data goes into an automated system to notify you if something is wrong.

No physician has the time to do this for her 3,000 or so patients. Technology enables you to do things that you couldn’t otherwise do for lack of time. The question of whether or not that takes a physician or health worker away isn’t really fair, because it’s making reference to a service that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Q: So you’re saying that telemedicine, regardless of form, is an addition, not a subtraction?

A: Using the example that you’re going online to see a doctor – is that the same as if you went into the doctor’s office? In some cases, no. It’s not the same. The best thing to do is to see a doctor face-to-face. But there are also occasions when that might not be possible.

Let’s say you’re travelling and you wake up with the flu and you need to see someone right away. You could track down some doctor that you don’t know and wait in the urgent care center for two hours, or maybe your doctor back home could meet with you online via webcam. You can tell him your basic symptoms and he can prescribe some medication.

Is that better than seeing a doctor that you don’t know face-to-face? For me, yes.

Q: So when is it worth forgoing the convenience of meeting my healthcare specialist online and just going into the doctor’s office?

A: If you have what you consider to be a serious illness, it’s often much nicer to have that human contact and an empathetic conversation with a real person in the room.

It’ll come as no surprise that Linkous believes that, on balance, telemedicine helps to humanize healthcare; that technology bridges the gap that would otherwise remain a chasm; and that it’s an addition, not a replacement, to the medical system. But it’s worth noting that he says this only happens if telemedicine is done right, that apps “could be” taking the human out of health care unless we continue to monitor the evolving landscape of heath care in our digital age.

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This article originally appeared on HealthBiz Decoded October 14. 

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