The use of the telephone and informational technologies to provide health care remotely may sound rather 21st Century, but when we define telemedicine, we find it's actually far from new. In fact, in the good old days people used to be able to actually call their doctors on the phone if they had any concerns, describe their symptoms, and ask whether to go to the emergency room, or the pharmacy, or to just stay put and wait it out.
While modern telemedicine may be more technologically sophisticated, it is, at its heart, an effort to replicate the best parts of this mini-triage-by-phone that used to be so commonplace. The benefits of talking to a doctor by phone are clear: it saves time, is convenient, and provides peace of mind.
And as mobile phone advancements in particular continue to race forward, telemedicine will see many changes in the years to come. Just one example: Call your telemedicine service provider about a rash and, after describing your symptoms, hold your phone's camera up to the area in question. If the doc can see the rash, he can often make a more accurate diagnosis.
The best way to take advantage of these advancements is to get started using a telemedicine service now. And the best way to get the most out of this service is to provide as much information about your own medical history as possible. (See our post on how to organize your medical records.) For instance: A kid who has the sniffles is very different than a kid with leukemia who has the sniffles.
A telemedicine service is by no means a replacement for a primary care physician whom you visit, in person, on a regular basis. But if you need an answer to a question fast, and don't want to use the emergency room as your fall-back, establishing a relationship with a doctor by phone really will save you time and money. It also makes preventive medicine more convenient, and perhaps most importantly, can help you make decisions on the various treatment options when you just don't know what to do.
Mark L. Friedman MD FACEP FACP is an emergency physician working to revolutionize the delivery of health care.