5 Things to Know About Telemedicine

July 27, 2015, 10:24am EDT

You may have recently heard of the term telemedicine. So what is telemedicine? It’s more than just a buzzword or a word to describe using FaceTime or Skype with your doctor. Telemedicine is the use of technology to connect patients with physicians or other health care providers outside of the traditional office visit. National Kidney Foundation President Jeffrey S. Berns, MD, breaks down what telemedicine means and how it can be used for people with kidney disease.

Telemedicine is defined as exchanging medical information between different sites. This means that instead of being treated in the same room, a patient can be located in a different city, or even country, from a doctor or other health care provider. The telemedicine appointment is conducted through electronic communications to provide diagnoses, treatment recommendations and health care education to improve patients’ health status. Here are 5 key details you should know about telemedicine:

  1. Telemedicine “visits” are typically conducted using special internet technology to transmit voice, images (including the patient and doctor), and sound. There is even a digital stethoscope and other tools available that can be used to transmit heart and lung sounds from the patient to the provider.
  2. For patients with kidney disease, telemedicine has been used to monitor blood pressures measured at home and has been shown to improve control of BP. Telemedicine has also been used successfully to provide resources and information to patients. For example, this information sharing could include providing information about how to best reduce dietary salt intake and how to take high blood pressure medications correctly.  
  3. Another use of telemedicine is to help connect two doctors together. For instance, an internist, family doctor, or nurse practitioner could talk with a nephrologist to discuss a patient and coordinate care. This model has been used very successfully in the U.S. Indian Health Service.
  4. Telemedicine has also been used to allow nephrologists or nephrology nurses to interact with patients who are being treated with home dialysis (both home hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis), to provide “visits” in-between regularly scheduled office visits. This could provide a great deal of comfort for patients to know that someone is available when concerns arise without requiring that patients travel to the dialysis center.
  5. For now, telemedicine is mostly limited to “virtual visits” for patients living in rural parts of the U.S. Before telemedicine, these patients would otherwise have to travel long distances to see their doctors or their doctors would need to travel long distances to see them.

So whether for diagnosis, treatment, doctor-to-doctor consultations, or just “keeping an eye on a patient when needed,” telemedicine may have a lot to offer in the future as technological advancements make this a more common medical model. It would not be surprising if in the near future, the reach of telemedicine increases significantly, changing the way we think about medicine, and bringing doctors and patients together more often, without the need to travel (and sit in a doctor’s waiting room).