by Karen Keller Capuciati
Just about every day, around 4pm, our mom makes sure her Skype account is turned on in case her friends call from England. This makes Kim and me smile — a couple years ago, Mom didn’t even want a computer, but now she’s videoconferencing like a pro.
It’s amazing how accessible videoconferencing has become, even among the older, supposedly computer-averse generation. It won’t be long now before videoconferencing is used for all sorts of purposes, including doctor visits. It’s called telemedicine, and it’s already in use in certain limited capacities. Imagine no more rushing to get the doctor’s office on time, no more waiting room with bad, out-of-date magazines, none of the stress that often comes with those sterile-smelling examination rooms filled with scary, invasive equipment.
In short, we’re talking about doctors being able to discuss, consult, diagnose and even treat patients while still in their pajamas. The patient, that is. This also means that patients can have medical monitoring of vital signs like heart rate, temperature and blood pressure done at home while the doctor reads the results in his or her office.
This is not to suggest that videoconferencing can replace the undeniable importance of hands-on, face-to-face visits with your physician. In fact, as Dr. Ray Dorsey, the director of the movement disorders division and neurology telemedicine at Johns Hopkins, explained in a recent NPR interview, “There are certain things you can’t replicate that you can do in person. You know, the human touch is very powerful. And certainly there’s portions of an examination that we can’t do remotely, that we can do in person.”
“But we have found that, through our experience and randomized controlled trials, that providing care to patients remotely in nursing homes and later in their homes is: one, feasible; two, generates clinical outcomes that are comparable to those in person; and three, offers tremendous value to patients.”
There are many clear benefits to telemedicine. Dr. Dorsey feels that people are more relaxed in their own home than in the doctor’s office and are likely to retain more of what the doctor tells them. Also, if a loved one has a movement disorder — say, advanced Parkinson’s disease — the trouble and pain of traveling to the doctor’s office is obviated. And if your parent resides in a skilled-nursing facility, they can meet with their individual doctors without the difficulty or expense of making special travel arrangements.
In the last two years of our dad’s life, each doctor’s visit would sap his energy for the day (not to mention Mom’s as well because she was the one who drove Dad around). Each appointment took a huge chunk of time — the actual doctor’s visit was the quickest part of the whole process. Had he been able to just click on a videoconferencing program and meet with the doctor from home, the rigors of Dad’s ordeal would have been considerably diminished.
Even more importantly, we would not have been limited by the pool of doctors within driving distance of our parents’ home. I recall there was a highly recommended rheumatologist in Orlando whom Kim and I wanted our father to see, but the hour and a half drive each way made it impractical. With technology, perhaps Dad could have made the one original visit face-to-face and then followed up via computer. Dad would have gotten the best possible treatment for the least possible trouble. Now that’s putting technology to work for you!
There is another benefit for those of us who don’t live in geographic proximity to our loved ones: three-way teleconferencing. That would allow Kim or me to be present with our mom at every doctor’s visit in her continuing recovery from a stroke, without our having to fly back and forth between Florida and New York for each important appointment.
The barrier right now is how medical insurance will treat this type of doctor’s meeting, whether it will be considered as a full-fledged doctor visit, with all the attendant cost, or perhaps whether patients may find themselves limited to this type of visit if insurance providers find they can’t resist the financial savings. Medicare, for example, already covers this kind of visit but only when you have no access to face-to-face treatment and even then you must perform the teleconferencing at one of Medicare’s specified locations, such as a doctor’s office, skilled nursing facility or hospital. This restriction is likely to change as medical teleconferencing proves to reduce healthcare costs without compromising patient care. Indeed, the insurance aspect of medical teleconferencing is another whole new world to come, unto itself.
As videoconferencing continues to become less expensive and easier to utilize, the healthcare industry will undoubtedly expand its reliance on the technology and integrate it further into routine medical treatment. Currently, videoconferencing is only being used to treat those in the armed forces, as well as veterans and some prisoners, but it’s easy to see that this technology has a huge future as an essential component of modern healthcare.
Karen Keller Capuciati is the Co-Founder of In Care of Dad.