With advances in technology making online and video consultations relatively cheap and easy, more physicians are embracing telemedicine as a type of modern house call. According to some experts, patient demand will push virtual healthcare into the mainstream sooner rather than later.
In Georgia, for example, research shows that 85 percent of patients age 18 to 85 have Internet access, and of those, 90 percent have web cameras or would be willing to buy one to facilitate seeing their doctor for minor problems, Troy Heidesch, CEO of Smart House Calls based in Watkinsville, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Even more powerfully, 42 percent said they would consider changing doctors to take advantage of telemedicine services, Heidesh added.
In addition to providing convenient, efficient care for minor ailments such as sore throats and ear infections, telemedicine can be a valuable tool in reducing hospitalizations related to chronic conditions. For example, in 2010, 44 school children from the same county showed up in the emergency room for asthma-related illnesses at a cost of about $2,500 per visit, the newspaper reported. A year later, once the county implemented a telemedicine program, only one of the students ended up in the ER, according to Georgia Partnership for Telehealth CEO Paula Guy.
"It's not about the technology anymore, it's about applying it," Guy said. "In the next few years, it will no longer be known as telehealth. It's just going to be the way we do healthcare."
But not all health experts want to see virtual care substantially displace in-person medicine, noted an article in InformationWeek. In particular, some worry that patient health will suffer the loss of human touch from their doctors, citing research that indicates patients who are touched are more cooperative, feel safer and suffer less cardiovascular stress. Even more compelling, studies have shown that simple touch and eye contact is associated with dramatic health gains in some vulnerable patient populations, including premature babies and patients with Alzheimer's disease.
Therefore, it's important for physicians to find the right balance when incorporating telemedicine services into their practices, and be attuned to when a little old-fashioned facetime may be just what the doctor ordered.