The idea of telehealth is controversial, but its impact in the healthcare industry is undeniable. This advancement has allowed healthcare providers to expand their services beyond the four walls of a facility and reach patients who may not have the luxury of immediate medical access. Patients diagnosed with rare diseases now have the ability to find comfort in digital healthcare and medical specialists can collaborate with each other from the other side of the world. This technology is not meant to entirely replace in-person visits, but to support physicians and patients who may not have the funds or resources to travel for necessary treatment and improve research and diagnostic decisions.
Introducing Virtual Care
Telemedicine exchanges medical information using web-based applications, smartphones, video, and email. This technology is often used for initial and follow-up appointments, post-hospitalization care and managing a patient’s chronic condition.
This advancement has been criticized because some say it may have the ability to hinder the personal relationship between a physician and patient, devaluing the idea of an in-person visit or physical exam. This is followed by a long list of concerns including security issues, insurance reimbursement restrictions, and limited internet access. Although telemedicine presents these barriers, the benefits have paved the way for its growing success and its potential has become undeniable.
Reaching Distant Locations
While you may not recognize the challenges remote patients face, there are a number of studies that confirm survival rate drops the further you are from an urban medical center. Even more alarming, only 3 percent of oncologists practice in remote locations nationwide. Fortunately, telehealth is beginning to become available to those outside of major cities and studies have shown its promise in bridging the clear gap between distant patients and quality healthcare. For example, the University of Iowa found that implementing telehealth in rural hospitals reduces a patient’s emergency room wait time by an average of six minutes. This may seem like a small amount of time, however, a few short minutes could separate someone from life or death in the case of a medical emergency.
Aside from improving public access to quality healthcare, this technology can help physicians stay attentive to their patients from a distance and even during off-hours. Concord Hospital has demonstrated this by providing a cardiac specialist with bluetooth enabled stethoscopes that allow him to remotely monitor the hearts of patients in need of frequent check-ins. This has relieved the stress of time and travel, and shows how virtual care enables physicians to consistently monitor patients despite inconvenient circumstances.
Rare Disease Patients and Early Detection
With as many as 30 million people diagnosed nationwide, it has become impossible to ignore those struggling to fight a rare illness. These patients face a number of unique challenges due to the lack of research, treatment, and locally available specialists.
The UAB School of Medicine and the Alabama Department of Public Health are using telehealth to ensure all patients have access to quality healthcare statewide. UAB nephrologist, Eric Wallace, discussed how this can provide subspecialty care that may only be accessible through a university, which is often the case for patients suffering from a rare disease. In addition, telehealth helps to eliminate obstacles surrounding access to clinical trials, extending the option to patients who may have otherwise been unable to participate.
This is significant for those who are living with rare and complicated cancers like mesothelioma, that have a tendency to be aggressive and misdiagnosed. Clinical trials have become vital to finding adjuvant therapies that can effectively treat these patients. This disease primarily harms the lungs, an area of oncology that has seen some progress with telemedicine. For example, a 2017 study in France found that lung cancer patients who reported their symptoms weekly through a web-based app survived an average of seven months longer than patients under traditional care.
All in all, telehealth has the opportunity to change how healthcare is approached. As this it continues to progress, we hope to shed light on how it may not only help cancer patients, but those affected by any rare disease.