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Telemedicine: The Future Of Healthcare

Out of all the massive changes produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the global telecommunications boom stands as one of the most significant. An International Finance Corporation survey noted:

“The COVID-19 pandemic—perhaps more than any other event in human history—has demonstrated the critical importance that telecommunications infrastructure plays in keeping businesses, governments, and societies connected and running. Because of the economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic, people across the globe rely on technology for information, for social distancing and working from home.”

The day-to-day experiences of most Americans confirm this reality. These last 2 years, it’s unlikely there is a single person in the United States who hasn’t participated in countless virtual alternatives for usually in-person experiences: logging their child onto Zoom for school, meeting with coworkers via Google Meet, scheduling a “Skype party” with friends, worshiping remotely with their church over Facebook, and more.

A distinctive area where everyday life has moved increasingly online is in our healthcare. Before the pandemic arrived, the adoption of digital health platforms and treatments had stalled, driven by skepticism and bad user experiences that soured consumers on telemedicine’s efficacy.

Yet, with the highly contagious COVID-19 still pervasive and abounding, telemedicine as a healthcare method saw an unexpected renaissance. Read on to learn how telemedicine began (and continues to evolve) and how ACU Online is equipping its healthcare students to work in this new competency.

History of Telemedicine

Despite its associations with modern technology and the Internet, telemedicine is not new. Broadly speaking, telemedicine can be defined as “the use of telecommunications technology to provide medical information and services.” Though some historians trace its emergence to as early as medieval Europe—when bonfire smoke was used to transmit information about the bubonic plague—in contemporary American medical history, telemedicine began as a recognizable practice over 150 years ago. Here are some highlights:

  • During the Civil War, army doctors and field medics used telegraph technology to transmit casualty lists and order medical supplies.
  • By 1900, physicians were among the first to adopt the newly invented telephone in their medical practices.
  • In World War I, radio communication became widespread and was used in the 1930s to transmit medical information to remote regions in Alaska and Australia. 
  • Radio became a fixture of army medicine in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, when it was regularly used to dispatch medical teams and helicopters. 
  • The Space Race saw massive leaps forward in medical monitoring. NASA scientists successfully established sophisticated biomedical telemetry systems that physicians used to monitor astronaut’s physiology and remotely treat them thousands of miles away.
  • The first interactive medical video link was established in 1964 between two Nebraska hospitals, 112 miles apart. 
  • In 1967, the first complete telemedicine system linking the medical station in Boston’s Logan Airport with Massachusetts General Hospital was developed. Physicians demonstrated they could accurately diagnose patients via interactive television, using transmitted x-rays, medical records, and laboratory data.
  • Over the next 50 years, the federal government invested in research and development of telemedicine programs. Most of these systems were developed for rural areas, where medical understaffing became a critical issue in the 21st-century. 

In the ensuing half-century, telemedicine remained a relatively new phenomenon confined to rural areas with spotty medical access. The American medical community and broader public generally viewed it as a stopgap measure: a substitute for traveling to obtain medical care, a method coordinating care and communication in large institutions, and a vital link in emergency situations where physician access wasn’t immediately possible. Virtual healthcare was not seen as a long-term standard on par with regular, in-person care administered by a physician.

In fact, the usage of digital health tools decreased substantially between 2018 and 2020—driven by widespread skepticism about the effectiveness of virtually administered doctor’s appointments and medicine. 

Telemedicine in the Era of COVID-19

Of course, this changed rapidly with the emergence of COVID-19. A good case study for the massive pandemic increase in telemedicine are Veterans Affair (VA) hospitals. In 2020, VA hospitals virtually treated 79% more veterans than in 2019. And, in September 2020, they completed more than 37,000 video appointments, a more than 1,000 percent increase from February of that same year. 

Veterans were not only ones who flocked to telehealth platforms during the pandemic. A study by the Center for Disease Control found a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. This move was fueled, in large part, by pandemic-related telehealth policy changes and public health guidance. But telemedicine’s resurgence was also fueled by employers and healthcare providers expanding coverage of and developing more robust telehealth platforms.

Even as stay-at-home orders have lapsed and pandemic restrictions loosened, telemedicine options aren’t going away. The pandemic proved “virtual healthcare works,” says Ron Moody, chief medical officer at Accenture Federal Services. “Now we need to take what we’ve learned during the current crisis and transform healthcare into a virtual-first system.”

Telemedicine’s Future

Clearly, COVID-19 has been a catalyst for a shift in the mindset of patients and providers, and that shift is expected to drive huge changes in the healthcare system. Now that more people have experienced new ways of receiving and providing virtual health services, whether by video, text, chat, or other modalities, it turns out that many people like it.

But—in order to sustain telemedicine as a viable field of legitimate healthcare—governments, providers, and physicians need to commit to improving and investing in these platforms and the people who run and produce them. Dr. Moody argues for out-of-the-box thinking and innovation, saying “in a more virtual future, perhaps providers will send patients home from the hospital with iPads. Medicare and Medicaid could reimburse devices and connectivity when they’re needed for healthcare. And the use of bots can increasingly help supplement shortage of physicians and nurses.”

ACU Online has already been intentionally engaging the realities of telemedicine in the classroom in order to equip the next generation of medical professionals in this changing world of healthcare. According to Rebecca Cesar, a professor in our Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration program:

“ACU’s undergraduate healthcare administration program recognizes the role of telemedicine in healthcare delivery by incorporating it throughout our curriculum.  Students will learn about the technologies needed to provide telemedicine in their practice, applicable laws and regulations, and tips for job descriptions. Students will also consider how to adapt to innovation, improve the patient experience, and lead during times of change.”

Dr. Catherine Garner, a professor in our online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, agrees. As she says, “telemedicine is a new competency” for nurses and everyone working in healthcare. As such, she weaves in discussion and strategy about telemedicine into every one of her classes. The DNP program focuses on developing leaders in nursing who can think about these new methods of connecting with and treating patients.

She teaches every nurse to consistently ask these three questions in their practice with telemedicine: 

  1. How do I make a new relationship?
  2. How do I use digital technology?
  3. How do I walk clients through receiving care? 

Because, if there’s one thing that the pandemic taught us, real substantive connection is more important than ever: whether on a computer screen, through a telephone, or in-person. Want to be on the forefront of telemedicine innovation and the future of healthcare? Visit our website or call 855-219-7300 to learn how you can get a healthcare degree from ACU Online.

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