Some may think that telemedicine, with its advanced features and methods that seem to come from sci-fi movies, has only been around for a couple of years. While it may be true that telemedicine has evolved by leaps and bounds in this decade only, this concept has been around for quite some time.
It can be said that telemedicine has been around since pretty much the same time that doctors and communication have been existing. Technology and the health industry has always gone hand in hand when it comes to coming up with ways to promote better health.
This article aims to discuss how telemedicine all began, and it highlights significant developments of this concept through the years, from its beginnings to up to the present. Through this, we will see how telemedicine has evolved into the incarnation that we all now know and enjoy.
Ancient Examples of Telemedicine
Before the invention of telecommunication devices such as telephones or radios, ancient people have already had a primitive form of telemedicine. This can be as simple as having a messenger traveling on foot to provide medical information from a doctor or patient, or even delivering medicine to the sick.
Others, such as the Greeks or Native Americans, utilize signaling systems that can symbolize deaths, births, or plagues. These can come in the form of some signals, horns, drums, or fires with certain patterns representing specific meaning.
The Birth of Telecommunication
Before telephones and radio, we had the telegraph. This medium was used to report deaths or sickness, primarily during the Civil War. However, it was after the invention of phones and radio equipment that telemedicine really found its footing.
In the early 1900s, there was an illustration of a doctor attending to a patient via a rudimentary communications device that is capable of video signals, which was not possible during the time but served as a sign of things to come. Hospitals, however, were quickly utilizing phones to communicate with patients within the localized vicinity.
A prime example of telemedicine used in diagnosing disease came from Pennsylvania, where in radiology images were sent via telephone line. A decade later, Canada followed suit with a system that performed the same functions but with a wider range.
The University of Nebraska, on the other hand, utilized an early form of videoconferencing to link medical students as well as hospitals. This allowed information to be passed and consultations to be held without requiring physical presence to the location. This was done during the 1950s and 60s.
Other initiatives during this period included the STARPAHC, or the Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care. Spearheaded by NASA, the project piloted this telemedicine program to Native Americans with the purpose of using the technology to monitor the health of astronauts.
Many other research and investments were made in telemedicine during this era, which aimed to primarily service specific demographics such as:
- Those in areas of conflict or war
- Those located in remote locations such as the Arctic
- Those incarcerated in prisons
- Those found in rural communities with limited access to hospitals
Other facilities that utilized early forms of medicine before the rise of the Internet include Massachusetts General Hospital, the Veterans Administration Hospital, and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
The Rise of Modern Telemedicine
Arguably, telemedicine boomed due to the creation of the Internet. As communication now knew no bounds, so did the sharing of information and, with it, the rapid rise of technology that supported telemedicine.
Whether it be software such as AI and health tracking apps, or hardware such as wearables and powerful computers and scanning equipment, it was during the last two to three decades that we have experienced a significant leap in telemedicine technologies.
The American Telemedicine Association was founded in 1993, just four years after the Internet became available to the public. The goal of ATA is to push for telemedicine growth in the country. This pertains not only to research and development, but implementation and government regulations as well.
Six years after that, Medicare started, albeit in a limited capacity, to cover payments for telehealth consultants. Many more around the world followed suit. Laws such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also focused on investments in telemedicine technologists to help improve the health care industry.
Perhaps the biggest change in telemedicine to date was in 2014, when eVisit was launched. eVisit was one of the first mainstream platforms that allowed medical practitioners to chat with their patients online. Many more followed suit, but eVisit paved the way for software platforms to bridge patients and doctors together.
The mid-2010s also saw the rise of apps and wearables. While early forms of personal health trackers were available much earlier, the apps of gadgets of today now are capable to real-time monitoring and uploading to the cloud, providing data to health professionals as well as to individuals for further analysis.
Other major advancements in the telemedicine industry include the use of AI to detect diseases at faster and more accurate rates, store and forward technologies, and online systems for scheduling virtual consultations and ordering medication.
Currently, telemedicine is a 34 billion dollar industry and it has helped dramatically in not only improving the quality of health care, but also widening the reach of medical aid. Telemedicine has also resulted in savings with regards to patient costs as well as to overhead expenses of medical establishments.
Telemedicine has allowed hospitals to cater to more patients, which results in higher revenue despite charging for less. They can also focus more on emergency and serious cases as more and more patients with less that severe conditions would most likely stay at home.
As technology evolves, we will also see some amazing strides in telemedicine that will grow side by side with further advancements. Further developments will offer some amazing advantages, not only for patients that require medical attention, but to the doctors, nurses, and specialists that cater to these needs.
Simply put, we are confident that the evolution of telemedicine, from its humble beginnings to now, is far from over. In fact, it has only just begun.