A Brief History of Telehealth

Telehealth has been the story of a “revolution” that never quite materializes.  That has changed, with experts are projecting the market to grow at 20% annually over the next several years.  “Telehealth” is a term used broadly to encompass interactive videoconferencing, electronic exchange of information, remote monitoring of vital signs, patient portals, and more.  “Telemedicine” is a closely related term that refers the actual delivery of remote clinical services.  These services are increasingly available using standard internet-connections, computers, tablets, and smart phones.

Early Days

The roots of telehealth go back to 1906 when Dr. Willem Einthoven, inventor of the EKG, devised a way to transmit this data over telephone lines.  Understanding the potential of communication technology to transform medicine, a 1920s Popular Science magazine foretold of “radio doctors.”  But, the first incarnation of modern telehealth can be traced to 1955 when a remote clinic in Nebraska established a closed circuit TV connection with a hospital 100 miles away.  By the year 2000 videoconferencing between medical facilities was fairly common in rural areas, but far from ubiquitous.  Adoption of telehealth has been slowed by:

  • Restrictions in Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance reimbursement;
  • Requirement to purchase a dedicated, hardware based videoconferencing system;
  • Reliance on grants to launch and sustain programs.

Recent Developments in Videoconferencing

Internet-based videoconferencing has improved greatly over the past few years and is now possible on most computers.  A web camera and noise cancelling speaker/microphone (or headset) are the only additional requirement, and these are built-in to many newer machines.  The latest generation of tablets produces satisfactory quality, even over 4G networks.  All these factors have changed the landscape for videoconferencing and reduced the financial barrier to entry.

Reimbursement & Policy Issues

Reimbursement policies are also changing in support of videoconferencing, further accelerating adoption.  Some examples of these changes:

  • 16 states require private insurance reimburse services delivered via telehealth and more are expected to follow soon (as of March 2013);
  • The Affordable Care Act mental health parity have created opportunities for telehealth;
  • In 2012 legislation was introduced that allows providers affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver telehealth services across state lines, eliminating a requirement that the providers be licensed in the same state as their patients.

The Future of Videoconferencing in Health Care

While some providers will work with patients extensively using videoconferencing, most will only use it on an as-needed basis.  Still, medical professionals across all specializations will be expected to have this capability.  This includes primary care, psychiatry, psychology, care managers, translators, care managers, dermatology, and emergency.  It will be used to conduct follow-up sessions, minimize no-shows, determine if an in-person visit is necessary, provide services while patients are traveling, etc.   Medical professionals will also use this technology to better collaborate with other professionals.

The three keys to this are 1) the availability of inexpensive devices that produce high quality videoconferences, 2) ubiquitous internet availability, and 3) virtual meeting rooms that are easy to access, HIPAA compliant and inexpensive.  The good news is that the time is now.  So get ready, because the telehealth revolution will be videoconferenced.  At SecureVideo we’d like to help make this dream a reality.