Saving lives from miles away: Telemedicine is giving new meaning to the phrase ‘universal healthcare’

August 18, 2016

One of the worst parts about catching a cold, or needing to refill a prescription, is actually having to haul your butt all the way to the doctor’s office, only to sit in the waiting room for an hour. It’s even worse if you live in a remote area, and a hundredfold more extreme if you live in a third world country.

The medical industry has always been limited by manpower. One doctor can only treat SO many people, and advanced diagnostics equipment can only travel SO far (i.e. not across deserts or onto remote islands). So a need for remote medical access has always existed.

In the 1920s, an era which exulted radio as king, the first drafts of the teledactyl appeared. Hint: it’s every bit as terrifying as it sounds.

Hugo Gernsback wrote an article which introduced the teledactyl, which connected doctors and patients via the big tech of the radio. The theory was that doctors would be able to view their patients through a screen, and be able to examine them with spindly metal “fingers”. He believed that this technology would be prevalent by 1975 (50 years after his article was published).

An excerpt from his article:

The Teledactyl (Tele, far; Dactyl, finger — from the Greek) is a future instrument by which it will be possible for us to “feel at a distance.” This idea is not at all impossible, for the instrument can be built today with means available right now. It is simply the well-known telautograph, translated into radio terms, with additional refinements.

The doctor of the future, by means of this instrument, will be able to feel his patient, as it were, at a distance….The doctor manipulates his controls, which are then manipulated at the patient’s room in exactly the same manner. The doctor sees what is going on in the patient’s room by means of a television screen.

The busy doctor, fifty years hence, will not be able to visit his patients as he does now. It takes too much time, and he can only, at best, see a limited number today. Whereas the services of a really big doctor are so important that he should never have to leave his office; on the other hand, his patients cannot always come to him.

This is where the teledactyl and diagnosis by radio comes in.



Unfortunately for Gernsback, the Internet came along and gobbled up every communication technology that came before it, meaning that the radio was no longer our most advanced tech. And with the Internet came telemedicine, which facilitates remote video consults between doctors and their patients.

There are services like Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders) and The Royal Flying Doctor Servicewhich already deliver direct treatments to remote patients. Telemedicine can actually be used to complement these practices.

Kay Hodgetts, an Australian doctor who is familiar with working in crisis-affected areas, spoke of her first encounter with telemedicine while working in Ethiopia.

“The great advantage of telemedicine is that our patients, despite being treated in places with limited resources, can access specialised care,” she said.

“Currently, widespread internet access in our projects helps bridge the gap between the level of care in the field and in large medical centres. In fact, it makes even more sense that we use telemedicine in these contexts because we have fewer diagnostic tools.”


Kay Hodgetts in Ethiopia

One of the big advantages of telemedicine is the opportunities it opens for greater knowledge sharing. Imagine being the only doctor looking after a remote clinic, and being presented with completely unique cases every day. Doctors are equipped with general knowledge across a huge spectrum, but they don’t have the in-depth knowledge which specialists hold. That’s kinda why they’re called specialists.

If you’re able to consult specialists easily, that results in the doc doing a better job, and the patient receiving the care they deserve. It’s a total win-win.

Daniel Martinez, one of the three coordinators of the Médecins Sans Frontières telemedicine service, explains why some types of knowledge need to be shared. “A large proportion of our patients are children under five years old, but we work with few pediatricians. Children are not just small adults and they require specific care.

Knowing that many of them will be attended by staff who have no specific knowledge, it is very important to have support such as telemedicine that can give doctors guidance in the most complicated cases.”

Although the greatest benefits of telemedicine can be felt in remote or disadvantaged communities, telemedicine is universally applicable. It can help elderly people retain independence by staying at home, help women give birth at home, easily refill a prescription, or even reduce the risks of getting even sicker at a germ-laden doctor’s office. Telemedicine isn’t here to mechanise the patient-doctor relationship, but instead to compliment and improve it.

And it even means you can relax on your couch while your doc assures you it’s just a little cold.



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