Telemedicine is becoming a hugely popular health care product, and a great way to connect doctors and medical facilities with patients. Although many people are still not familiar with its application or availability, the medical community is acutely aware of the cost savings and efficacy of providing direct access between the healer and the sick.

As a matter of fact, the American Medical Association has stated that 70 percent of physician visits and 40 percent of hospital emergency room (ER) visits can be handled by a phone call. Of course, emergencies and difficult diagnoses are most readily addressed by going to a health care provider.

Telemedicine (sometimes called telehealth) has several advantages. And, the vast majority of patients like using this type of service. A survey by electronic health research firm Software Advice found that just 6 percent of patients who have used telemedicine didn’t perceive any benefits over in-person visits. The remaining patients cited the following benefits of virtual appointments:

  • 21 percent – quality of care
  • 21 percent – don’t have to travel
  • 20 percent – comfort of home
  • 11 percent – quick access to care
  • 10 percent – shorter wait time
  • 9 percent – easy to use
  • 8 percent – avoid waiting room
  • 4 percent – cost effective

So, those 6 percent would likely have complained about anything. You can’t make everyone happy. But a 94 percent success ratio is better than most options when considering ways to deliver patient care. Primarily, people said it is so much more convenient. They save time from leaving work or school and save money. The convenience dominates over all other aspects.

And employers like it as it keeps the absenteeism rate low. Benefits to employers include not having to reimburse a doctor for the expense of an office visit and not having employees spend half of a work day waiting to talk to a physician to get a prescription for a relatively simple health issue, such as a sore throat or other minor ailment.

Sometimes telemedicine is best understood in terms of the services provided and the mechanisms used to provide those services, according to the American Telemedicine Association. Here are some examples:

Primary care and specialist referral services may involve a primary care or allied health professional providing a consultation with a patient or a specialist assisting the primary care physician in rendering a diagnosis. This may involve the use of live interactive video or the use of store and forward transmission of diagnostic images, vital signs and/or video clips along with patient data for later review.

Remote patient monitoring, including home telehealth, uses devices to remotely collect and send data to a home health agency or a remote diagnostic testing facility for interpretation. Such applications might include a specific vital sign, such as blood glucose or heart electro-cardiogram (ECG) or a variety of indicators for home-bound patients. Such services can be used to supplement the use of visiting nurses.

Consumer medical and health information includes the use of the Internet and wireless devices for consumers to obtain specialized health information and on-line discussion groups to provide peer-to-peer support.

Medical education provides continuing medical education credits for health professionals and special medical education seminars for targeted groups in remote locations.

As more individuals obtain health insurance due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the debate about how to provide greater access to care at a reasonable cost becomes ever more relevant. Now, telemedicine is emerging as a crucial building block in the delivery of care, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Telemedicine also allows individuals to take greater control of their ailments, which is a way for patients to “self-manage” their condition.

However, training for telemedicine isn’t offered in medical schools; ongoing training of staff members is necessary for the programs to work. Telemedicine can transform medicine as much as electronic health records have if the commitment to quality management and consistent technical support is made. Additionally, health care professionals and policymakers need to think strategically about building a telemedicine network that can serve a large pool of patients.

According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), telemedicine has been growing rapidly because it offers four fundamental benefits:

Improved access. For over 40 years, telemedicine has been used to bring healthcare services to patients in distant locations. Not only does telemedicine improve access to patients but it also allows physicians and health facilities to expand their reach, beyond their own offices. Given the provider shortages throughout the world — in both rural and urban areas — telemedicine has a unique capacity to increase service to millions of new patients.

Cost efficiencies. Reducing or containing the cost of health care is one of the most important reasons for funding and adopting telehealth technologies. Telemedicine has been shown to reduce the cost of health care and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times, and fewer or shorter hospital stays.

Improved quality. Studies have consistently shown that the quality of health care services delivered via telemedicine are as good those given in traditional in-person consultations. In some specialties, particularly in mental health and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) care, telemedicine delivers a superior product, with greater outcomes and patient satisfaction.

Patient demand. Consumers want telemedicine. The greatest impact of telemedicine is on the patient, their family and their community. Using telemedicine technologies reduces travel time and related stresses for the patient. Over the past 15 years study after study has documented patient satisfaction and support for telemedical services. Telemedicine offers patients the access to providers that might not be available otherwise, as well as medical services without the need to travel long distances.

Smart doctors use smartphones to communicate telephonically with patients to provide value, savings, convenience, and quality of care. Not designed to replace the family physician, telemedicine is a powerful tool that can be used to augment treatment. When you need a prescription or a consultation in the middle of the night, or when you are on vacation, or on business travel, remember that your smartphone can be your best friend when you are sick.