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Telemedicine: Pros and Cons
Telemedicine, or remote health care, is one of the great innovations of modern health care. It can be used to make health care more accessible to patients and quickly connect patients to doctors. It also can be used to help diagnose and begin treatment for an array of physical and mental health issues, including addiction.
With the increase in opioid abuse and fatalities in rural areas, some believe telemedicine may help manage the opioid crisis by bringing addiction treatment to people who do not have access to doctors and therapists, or ability to travel. A consultation with a doctor or addiction specialist may help diagnose an opioid problem and launch someone into recovery, or could be an effective complement to outpatient drug rehab treatment. But, is telemedicine a panacea for more accessible addiction treatment?
What Is Telemedicine?
Many people wonder, “What is telemedicine and could it help me?” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines telemedicine as, “The practice of medicine when the doctor and patient are widely separated using two-way voice and visual communication (as by satellite, computer, or closed-circuit television).”
Essentially, it’s a way that healthcare professionals can use telecommunications technology such as video conferencing to assess, diagnose and treat patients who are unable to get into the office or who are located in remote locations where treatment options are extremely limited.
Sometimes called telehealth or e-health, telemedicine allows doctors and therapist to “see” patients in locations near and far, connecting with them in rural areas and even other countries. It was originally created as a way to reach and serve patients in rural areas but the concept has expanded over time. It also allows doctors and health professionals to consult with clinical, surgical and psychological experts in any location. Telemedicine also offers educational opportunities for medical students to observe hospital procedures and surgeries without having to travel.
Pros and Cons of Telemedicine
Research into telemedicine has been ongoing for many years. One recent study on patients’ perception of telemedicine showed that they found video doctor’s visits are acceptable in a variety of situations. They cited convenience, communication, privacy and comfort as positive attributes of the experience.
Another study that looked at benefits from the health care provider’s perspective indicated telemedicine can reduce geographical and time obstacles in care with the same or greater effectiveness of traditional care, but there are various barriers. The most common are technology challenges for both healthcare staff and patients, resistance to change, reimbursement and insurance issues, the age of the patient and level of education and tech-savviness.
There are many factors to consider in this growing field. Here is how the pros and cons stack up:
- Greater access to medical care for patients in rural areas
- Allows people who are ill or homebound to get help
- Gives employees a way to have appointments with minimal lost time
- May encourage people with addiction or mental illness to seek care
- May encourage people with mental health issues to be more consistent with follow-up care if they do not have to travel
- Helps people access consultations for complex chronic problems
- Can put people’s minds at ease if they live in or travel to another country
- Makes health care accessible to those who are disabled or who care for others and cannot travel
- Creates a line of communication between a patient’s doctors to discuss that patients case
- Allows medical practitioners in different locations to take part in surgical procedures
- Not suitable for all patients and situations
- Not available from all doctors and not all doctors will be comfortable with it
- May require special equipment
- Loss of in-person contact with doctors changes the doctor-patient relationship and may mean certain symptoms and issues get overlooked
- Not all health issues can be assessed without seeing a patient or ordering tests
- Technology glitches, such as Skype or a smartphone not working or the internet going down
- Possible privacy issues when using technology
- Doctors will not be able to accurately diagnose certain conditions through technology
- Some patients may have difficulty managing technologies
- While it may be helpful for getting immediate first aid and emergency advice, it cannot replace the need for an ambulance and ER visit
- Healthcare via telecommunications may be isolating
A Growing Industry
Telemedicine has been estimated to be an almost $20 billion business and is seen as a growth industry. Consumers will have to learn how to choose quality health care rather than just select services for the convenience. Both medical professionals and patients will have to adjust to this new approach while also recognizing that there are many conditions that require personal treatment, testing and in-person care.
There was a time when telemedicine belonged to the future. But as technology improves and demand grows, it is a healthcare approach that will become more common. It won’t be the best option for many, but if it can help people access the care they need and can in some way help people recover from opioid addiction, it is worth exploring.