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The Brief History of Telemedicine and its Place in the Healthcare of the Future

Doctor's hands on a laptop by the stethoscope during the telemedicine session

The pandemic has raised interest and demand around telemedicine. There is a passionate discussion going on about how it has surged in popularity and how its position is going to change in the future. To find out what is happening in this area, SOLVVE decided to guide you through a short history of telemedicine, examine its current benefits and shortfalls, and take a look at the possible scenarios of telemedicine development.

The brief history of telemedicine

Remote diagnostics and treatment require a stable connection and means to transfer reliable information between patients and doctors. It might seem that it is only possible to fulfill these requirements with modern tools and technologies with vast functionality of voice, video, and file transmission in real time. Yet, telemedicine as we imagine it has been around for at least 50 years.

Furthermore, already in 1879, The Lancet published an article discussing the use of telephones to cut the number of office visits for the patient. Later, in 1925, Science and Invention depicted a doctor communicating with the patient over the radio and went further predicting the use of video for this purpose. In the 1950s, sending radiological images using phone lines became normal practice.

The next push came with the NASA space programs that required medical care for the missions, including remote monitoring, consultations and the possibility of diagnostics. With the growing quality of video and voice calls and widespread access to internet connection telemedicine grew more popular to solve some of the existing issues with the traditional in-person visits.

Even though the market share of the telemedicine grew over time thanks to the many benefits it brings, it is still far away from overtaking hospital visits due to the number of existing issues. Let us take a look at both of them.

The current state of telemedicine

Despite the fast advance of technologies in the healthcare industry many issues still persist. For example, in 2016, the Wall Street Journal has reported a large number of misdiagnosing cases during remote skin examination. In some cases, misdiagnosis stemmed from insufficient video or photo quality, in others – unprofessional treatment from individuals without proper qualifications and licenses.

While this issue is easy to overcome by including systems and processes that verify the qualification of the healthcare specialist or cater specifically to verified businesses, the number of care providers remains insufficient. Moreover, one study showed that despite the availability of telemedicine, 82% of survey respondents have never used it. With such low engagement rates, it is easy to assume the low level of telehealth understanding among patients making them easy targets for fraudsters.

There are also roadblocks with insurance coverage, crossborder licensing, equipment availability, and so on. However, there is a more positive development to this story as humanity works towards solving the above-mentioned problems.

Telemedicine significantly saves time for both doctors and patients who do not need to travel or wait in lines granting more flexibility to everyone’s schedules. This is particularly the point for people with mobility problems and residents of remote areas. Moreover, all sorts of wearable devices and health tracking apps open new possibilities for monitoring and treatment of chronic conditions. 

What the future holds

As technologies become better we can expect that the market share of telemedicine will grow. Nevertheless, it will probably not replace in-person treatment. For one, some manipulations can only be done in person, e.g. surgery (even though remote control of surgical instruments has been in development for years as well). Secondly, not all groups of the global population have access to the internet and the necessary gadgets.

Thirdly, telemedicine seems to become handy during very specific times, namely epidemics. It is easy to see from the chart below how worldwide search for telemedicine on Google went up during 2004-2006 matching the outbreaks of SARS and Avian influenza (bird flu) and during 2019-2020 as humanity paves its way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is speculation that the current rise of telemedicine is a bubble that will burst once the pandemic is over. However, this is not the question of “either-or” dichotomy for telemedicine and traditional in-person treatment, but “as well as” approach where the global healthcare system has enough tools to match the various needs of the population. Thus, we can expect telemedicine to occupy a stable and long-lasting niche in the network of medical services.

If you have any questions or ideas related to telemedicine application in your projects, do not hesitate to contact us. Let us make this happen!