Connecting individuals from under-served or rural communities with decent,
affordable, and timely medical assistance has always been a challenge for the
healthcare industry. Technology is finally helping to solve the problem.
Telemedicine is the process of treating patients remotely using telecommunication
equipment in place of in-person visits. Advancements in technology in the 1950’s
and 1960’s made it possible for patients in one location to connect with specialists
in a different location for the first time. At first, it was as “simple” as sharing images
through phone lines, but exponential advances in technology since then have made
real-time conversations and image sharing possible. Today the process is as
straightforward as turning on your tablet, connecting with a licensed practitioner in
your state, and then having prescriptions sent to your local pharmacy.
Of course, telemedicine and connecting with a doctor via your iPad may not be the
best approach for some issues – such as broken bones and other emergency
injuries. But telemedicine may be just as good, if not better, for certain types of
health treatments, such as remedying rashes or conjunctivitis, identifying allergies,
reactions and insect bites, and treating mental illness and behavioral health issues.
Today there are more than 200 telemedicine services in the United States. These
services typically function by requiring patients to subscribe to their services on a
monthly basis and to pay small premiums for each “visit”. The increase in
availability of tablets and high-speed internet in the last decade has contributed to
the rapid growth of these companies. For example, one leading company, Teladoc,
reported 2.6 million visits in 2018, up from 1.5 million in 2017 – an 80% increase.
Despite the many benefits of telemedicine, there are potential risks associated with
the practice. Foremost is the concern about privacy and security. Although cyber
criminals have traditionally been focused on hacking and stealing financial data, the
electronic sharing of patient data has opened a whole new area where private
information can be taken and used for profit. The patient data being shared during
telemedicine encounters is subject to HIPAA protections, which means, among other
things, that the data must be fully encrypted and the peer-to-peer network
connections must be secure. Consumer video services like Skype and Facetime do
not meet the security standards required by HIPAA. At the same time, complying
with HIPAA makes the process more expensive. This balance between providing the
most accessible technology and keeping personal information secure will be a key
issue as the use of telemedicine continues to grow.