Telemedicine is the treatment and remote diagnosis of patients by means of telecommunications technology. In other words, doctors can communicate with their patients over great distances using technology.
American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous said while telemedicine has become popular in the last few years, it has been around for 20 to 30 years. Based in Washington, D.C., ATA is an international resource and advocate promoting the use of advanced remote medical technologies.
“There’s a large variety, and it can be something very sophisticated in technology like the use of robots in hospitals or it can be as simple as using a cell phone to be able to communicate with a physician,” Linkous said. “There’s really a whole range of technologies that can be used, and it all depends on the application and the specific use.”
Linkous said telemedicine is just the first step in helping a patient. In emergency cases, it is always advised that patients receive urgent care in-person, but in more common cases, such as the flu, cold or rash, it can be convenient and cost-effective to use telemedicine, he said.
“There’s a lot of research that has been done to make physicians and regulators more comfortable that, yes, you can provide quality care by using telemedicine,” Linkous said. “...There’s a greater demand, and telemedicine offers an opportunity to meet that demand.”
Telemedicine also comes in the form of mobile apps. Some apps allow the user to video chat with a doctor anywhere in the country, and others allow the user to send a picture of a cut or scrape to a doctor.
One app that was launched in Frisco in May is bringing back the house call: PediaQ.
PediaQ President John O’Sullivan said he saw the health care marketplace was becoming more comfortable with on-demand services.
“Recognizing that when a parent is at home with a sick child taking them to the doctor can be inconvenient,” O’Sullivan said. “With the technology available today we thought we could provide a modern version of the home visit.”
The app, which is free to download, can be used to request a qualified nurse practitioner to come to the home to check on a sick child.
“We’re giving parents peace of mind from the comfort of their home rather than taking their child to a doctor’s office surrounded with other sick children,” O’Sullivan said.
Some medical facilities, such as Children’s Health Medical Center in Dallas, use telemedicine as a communication tool.
Children’s Health has campuses throughout North Texas, including Plano.
Children’s Health uses telemedicine to keep a close watch on young patients as well as work with health care providers in various areas to help them communicate with their patients, said Julie Hall-Barrow, vice president of virtual health and innovation.
“We’ve done a great job for the last 100 years by having a great hospital and we take really good care of really sick kids, but we also want to make sure we’re keeping kids healthy and well,” she said.
Hall-Barrow said in an effort to expand access points to allow children to have access to primary care and specialty care, Children’s Health launched several telemedicine programs in different departments, including in its neonatal intensive care unit and emergency rooms. The programs assist the providers in more rural and regional communities with experts in the field of pediatrics.
Another program that Children’s Health piloted last year and has continued this year is its telemedicine school-based program. The program is a nontraditional access point of health care, and it allows Children’s Health to be virtually embedded in 57 schools in the North Texas corridor, a number that will eventually grow to include 30 more schools. The program will service Collin, Grayson and Tarrant counties.
“We’re talking about making basic medical care affordable and accessible.”
—Jodie Laubenberg, state representative
The school-based program provides virtual consultations with physicians through the use of mobile telehealth carts, which are fully-equipped stations that capture, transfer and store diagnostic medical images and patient data between medical professionals. With the permission of parents, the carts connect a Children’s Health Pediatric Group physician to a child who may visit the nurse’s office with an issue that is outside the nurse’s level of expertise.
Hall-Barrow said the use of telemedicine provides care for patients in places where they do not have access to certain types of specialty care.
“If a child lives in a specific ZIP code, they may or may not have access to quality care and this technology is providing that care wherever they live,” Hall-Barrow said. “So it’s super exciting for us to be able to do that.”
In order to expand the school-based program, Hall-Barrow worked closely with State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Murphy, to help pass legislation that would allow for that expansion.
Laubenberg said she first saw the benefit of telemedicine when her daughter was sick with the flu one night.
Her daughter’s primary care doctor’s office was closed so she called Teledoc, the largest telemedicine provider in the U.S., for advice. Patients whose employers or insurers have deals with the Dallas-based company can call any time and be connected with a physician on duty within minutes.
Laubenberg said the doctor on call ordered her daughter a prescription for antibiotics and soon her daughter felt better.
After seeing the Children’s Health school-based program, Laubenberg said she wanted to see the program expand.
House Bill 1878, which was authored by Laubenberg, passed during this legislative session. It allows the use of telemedicine services in a school-based setting, including the reimbursement of providers under the Medicaid program for those services.
“We’re talking about making basic medical care affordable and accessible,” Laubenberg said. “We have doctors’ offices and urgent cares on every corner in Collin County but you don’t have that in rural areas. So these models would work really well out there, and it does not replace your primary care doctor.”
Hall-Barrow said telemedicine is a good use for most medical professionals because it allows for more contact with the patient.
“We don’t always solve the problem with telemedicine, [but] we sure do identify what the next opportunity is for that [patient],” Hall-Barrow said. “So it’s a great opportunity to use telemedicine to reach out to patients at a great distance and allows us to help get that patient in the most appropriate site.”