The History of Telemedicine

It could be seen as something new, strange, or unfamiliar to a generation of medical professionals; however, telemedicine has been in existence since the 18th century. Some doctors still find this concept strange, which is partly why the adoption of telemedicine technology in recent years has been quite slow (until recently with the COVID-19 situation).

The methods of communication and, more specifically, telemedicine, have gradually evolved and improved over time from the initial invention of the electrical telegraph and, later, the telephone.

During the U.S Civil War, the telegraph was used for ordering medical supplies and also to notify family members about deaths or injuries on the battlefield. There is evidence that it was also used to communicate medical conditions and medical care from long distances.  It is important to note that before the invention of the telegraph and the telephone, communication inventions did not necessarily improve the practice of telemedicine. The popular long-distance medium of communication before these inventions was the mail.  As you might imagine, the use of mail to engage in any useful form of medical care was very difficult.

So, what is telemedicine? How did it start and its use over the years? What is its relevance to the health industry? Let’s dig into the facts.

Telemedicine – The Beginning

Telemedicine basically provided the tools for connectivity between people whereby recipients of care and their providers were unable to physically be in the same place at a time.

This idea of communicating with someone not physically present primarily started when ancient societies wanted to establish important communication between the settlements who were faced with internal and external threats.  So, inventions like smoke signals, drums, and horns were developed as a means of alerting someone at a distant location about developing information.  From these very humble beginnings, we can see the rise of telemedicine follow the rise of technology very closely.  This subsequently invented the establishment of clinical connectivity that now exists between patients and their health care provider(s).

Surprisingly telemedicine is not something that started to gain popularity in the technology age. For example, in 1924, the newspaper called Radio News had a black and white cover of a doctor conducting a patient assessment through a radio transmission.  That picture is here on this blog.  This was foreshadowing of what was going to happen over the next 100 years.

It wasn’t long before the medical field started to use the technology offered to them to better care for their patient.  For example, according to the medical literature, the first radiologic images were sent by physicians via telephone in 1948, which spanned 24 miles in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Some of the early use of telemedicine devices consisted of:

  • Transmitting EKG rhythms from remote locations to a hospital via the use of voice radio channels
  • The use of interactive television microwave link to transmit clinical data
  • Using a coaxial cable to transmit fluoroscopic images
  • Remote transmissions of EKG and X-ray data

Telemedicine in modern healthcare

Following on from when telemedicine first started, the past fifty years has seen it move into more mainstream use. Kaiser Permanente hospital announced in 2016 that they had seen patients via virtual telemedicine applications more than they have through the traditional in-person visits.

Prior to that, Kaiser Permanente hospital in 2014 to 2015 made use of telemedicine technology by:

  • Viewing 37 million tests online
  • Sending 20 million emails
  • Scheduling over 4 million patient appointments
  • Processing more than 17 million patient prescriptions

Although the telemedicine devices used presently might seem similar to those used in ancient times, modern health technology has improved this equipment to become smaller in size but greater in its range of features.

Devices such as fitness wristbands, heart rate monitor wearables are some examples of the modern-day health tools that are used to track patient’s vital data in real-time.

Popular amongst physicians are smart glasses and smartwatches, which in the long run, will become useful in relieving some of the tedious workloads of these doctors. For instance, some medical students at Stanford medical school have founded a digital health start-up that makes use of Google Glass to automatically transcribe medical records while performing patient examinations.

All these concepts and more are just evidence that with the combination of technology, there is more in place for telemedicine than its humble beginnings year ago.

There are still lots of uncharted territory and possibilities in the telemedicine industry that have not yet been explored by both private and government-owned research firms. However, given the explosion of this type of medical care recently, one can only imagine that more firms are going to start investing in this sector.  We here at Village Dermatology have always leaned into technology and welcomed any advances in technology that make our job of serving patients easier and more effective.

Currently, we are conducting patient visits virtually and will continue to do so even after this current situation calms down.  If you would like to have a virtual dermatology visit with any of our providers, then please call us or fill out the form on this page.

Stay Healthy!

Village Dermatology

For more information about Telemedicine check out our other blog entitled “What is telemedicine?”

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