If developments in education are a model, it won’t be too long before medicine by computer — “virtual” medicine or telemedicine — becomes a crucial part of the conversation of ordinary health-care consumers regarding cost-control and quality. As a public, we have been softened, digitally speaking, for virtual medicine. We are technologically capable, hooked, as we are, to smart and semi-smart devices. Every year, more of us abandon our brick-and-mortar traditions, opting to shop, buy services, bank and work exclusively online.
And consider the growing popularity of distance learning. Regular universities increasingly are playing catch-up, expanding online course offerings partly to respond to the growing market and appeal of such phenomena as the University of Phoenix. The state of Ohio, for instance, permits a school district that accepts open-enrollment to enroll students statewide. Third-graders are taking make-or-break reading tests online. Even GED testing has gone all electronic this year. This steady migration to a virtual sphere does not seem particularly unusual or threatening anymore.
Get over the natural wariness about new technology, and the reasons that are driving the surge in electronic commerce and education are just as appealing for health care: Barriers to service such as geographic borders no longer apply; a single institution or professional can reach a market that is potentially limitless; and transportation and other overhead costs can be reduced.
In short, the promise and appeal of e-medicine are ease of access and quality at much less cost than we are used to. The U.S. spends more than $2.5 trillion a year on health care. Yet for all that spending, the health-care system is regularly panned as dysfunctional, with gaps that would put poorer countries to shame. Millions of Americans still will remain uninsured and medical services will remain spotty for them even after the biggest expansion of coverage since the 1960s. A severe shortage of hospitals and specialists (and increasingly primary-care doctors) in many rural communities and the poorest pockets of urban centers leaves residents at medical risks.
It is little surprise that virtual medicine is rapidly outgrowing its niche as the preserve of experts and a tool for professional training. To be sure, well-appointed teaching hospitals, medical schools and research labs, for decades have used the advanced technologies to connect specialists in conferences and consultations and to teach courses that draw on external experts.
It was amazing to me several years ago when a radiologist sitting in his study at home explained how he could read and write reports on fresh x-rays taken at the lab and submit the reports immediately to physicians on duty. And he didn’t have to get into his car at all hours, drive several miles to the hospital to review the x-rays. Best of all, it didn’t matter where in the world he was, if he could get on the Web, he was on the job. The technology makes for faster diagnosis and treatment. It saves time and reduces the anxiety of waiting, features that are especially critical in emergencies.
Health technology is moving farther into the mainstream as companies market hardware and software that enable easier online connections between patients and medical offices. The benefits and concerns are becoming part of the general conversation regarding how we manage our health care.
And there is something still unsettling about conducting health-care business by remote connection. It is one thing to be comfortable, say, putting your money in a bank without boundaries or studying for a degree from a virtual college. It would be painful if something went awry with such transactions, but they won’t have life-and-death potential as could a health situation.
Confronted with the idea that someday, routine doctor appointments would be conducted via iPad and the Web, most people worry reasonably about privacy and the confidentiality of their sessions or records. Also, considering that there is a digital divide already, another concern is whether virtual medicine would widen further the disparities in health care.
My fear is that what is gained in time and cost-savings could be lost in the quality of consultations. Doctors touch and feel and watch for reactions. They observe the whole person, and sometimes based on what they observe, they ask questions that seem unrelated to the point of the consultation. If all a doctor can see is a talking head, it would be anyone’s guess what pertinent information could be lost.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.