Yesterday, Dr. Pauline Chen reported in the New York Times on virtual visits, a little-used approach for providing care to patients hundreds or thousands of miles apart from their physicians.

Telemedicine depends on satellite technology and data transfer. It’s a theoretical and possibly real health benefit of the World Wide Web, that giant, not-new-anymore health resource that’s transforming medicine in more ways than we know.  Chen writes:

Telemedicine has the potential to improve quality of care by allowing clinicians in one “control center” to monitor, consult and even care for and perform procedures on patients in multiple locations. A rural primary care practitioner who sees a patient with a rare skin lesion, for example, can get expert consultation from a dermatologist at a center hundreds of miles away. A hospital unable to staff its intensive care unit with a single critical care specialist can have several experts monitoring their patients remotely 24 hours a day.

I’m reminded of three things:

First, my recent visit to my internist’s office on East 72nd Street, a short walk from my home. When I see my doctor she smiles warmly, shakes my hand firmly and examines me from head to toe. She takes my blood pressure with an old-fashioned sphygmomanometer, looks at my eyes and into my throat, applies a stethoscope to my scarred chest as she listens to my heart and lungs, and palpates – “feels” in doctorspeak – my lymph nodes, liver and spleen. All that along with a neurological exam; she sees how I stand, walk and balance my head over my torso.

Second, my husband’s conversation with his mom yesterday evening, via Skype, transmitted between his laptop in our living room and her computer in a Buenos Aires apartment.

Third, some history from the 1950s – on how early computer scientists envisioned the future of medicine. From my master’s thesis at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, on how the “How the Internet is Changing the Practice of Oncology”:

When Vladimir Kozmich Zworykin addressed the 1956 assembly on “Electrical Techniques in Medicine and Biology,” he marveled at the technological feats of computers, and envisioned how these new instruments might be applied in health care. Zworykin, an inventor of television …was privy to the newest developments in applied science.

…He’d seen closed-circuit “Telecolor Clinics” that transmitted the latest cancer research news to physicians in cities along the eastern Seaboard and Great Lakes Region. A color, television microscope linking monitors in Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore enabled doctors in one city to identify cancer in another…

We’re back in the future! My take on telemedicine includes three components; each corresponds to one association above.

1. Telemedicine is not the same as real medicine. I like seeing my doctor in real life and am reassured by her true presence in the room.

Besides, a hands-on exam has some tangible benefits. A good doctor, who knows how breathing sounds should sound, confident in her examination skills, might skip an x-ray she’d otherwise order. A competent hematologist, skilled in palpating her patients’ lymph nodes, liver and spleen, could spare us the costs and risks of some CT scans and MRIs.

Of course, the doctor’s hands should be clean… (a topic unto itself)

2. Virtual visits might help. The reality of medicine requires innovation and compromise – making the best of a sometimes difficult situation.

As Pauline Chen points out in her column, there’s a shortage of doctors affecting some, particularly rural, parts of the U.S. Policy experts anticipate the problem won’t go away with current health care reform measures, and some business reports warn the situation will get worse. Telemedicine, while not ideal, might ameliorate this effect and make a positive difference in the health of people living far from major medical centers. The technology could, indeed, connect patients with specialists who would otherwise be out of reach.

3. The future of medicine will embrace some elements of telemedicine. We just need to fine-tune the process.

As I see it, Internet or satellite-directed medical examinations are most promising for image and data-centric fields like radiology and pathology. It’s telling that Pauline Chen’s first example pertains to dermatology (skin diseases). Sure, I think a far-away expert’s view of a skin lesion could be helpful – it might reassure some that a mole or a rash is nothing to worry about, or inform them that indeed, they should hop on a train to Memphis. For patients with benign-appearing lesions, telemedicine could save costs and time in travel and unnecessary appointments, besides biopsies.

But I’m wary of implementing this tool in primary care areas and interventional fields like surgery and obstetrics. The prospect of delivering babies upon real-time instruction by doctors in cities far away is not what I’m hoping for, at least not for my kids’ kids.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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