When I use the term “Telemedicine,” what does it mean to you?

In current parlance, it usually refers to radiologists looking at digital images of x-rays and other scans from locations remote from the site of acquisition. [Think “outsourcing” where the radiologist could even be as far away as India.]

Chatting with your doctor via computer link-up. He sure looks ready for action!

But according to a recent conference I attended, Telemedicine could mean so much more: It can range from synchronous video chat between a patient and a doctor, to conferencing between doctors, to allied health professionals (nutritionists, physical therapists) giving live (or canned) presentations to groups of patients–who are geographically far apart.

The technology is already here. The biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of Telemedicine is, you guessed it, payment. Or what health care people call reimbursement.

Our current system rewards in-person visits in a fee-for-service model. Each episode of care is monetized. The more episodes, the more charges. Health care reform will supposedly bring about bundled payments, whereby health care teams (not just us doctors) will provide care for patients assigned to us for monthly charges paid to us by insurance companies, as part of an arrangement known by the widgety name “Accountable Care.” In an accountable care model, doctors would be paid for seeing patients in person or not–so suddenly email, video chat, and data transfer sound a whole lot more convenient for both parties in terms of time and convenience.

How can a doctor examine a patient remotely, you say?

No one thinks Telemedicine will replace the face-to-face encounter; instead, it will augment it. For certain items, a doctor can get readings from a machine-e.g. blood pressures, weights, or glucose levels. Digital photos and video chat work well for skin issues.

In mental health, where resources are often in short supply, Telemedicine has taken on an increasing role in doctor-patient virtual visits.

Soon, your smartphone will have a front-loaded camera, which will allow real-time video chat. No more having to use a desktop or laptop to Skype; even basic calling packages will have this functionality built in.

Technology and innovation will drive medicine toward a more patient-centered convenience; there will be more remote diagnostics and consulting, and less face to face time. Patients will respond by taking more charge of their own records, and decide with whom and to what extent to share them from cloud-based, encrypted storage systems.

The day cannot be too far off. After all, we already have a plethora of e-Patients.