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Doctors offer comfort to their patients in the most vulnerable moments. They make sense of unknown illness and offer a path to wellness. But sometimes, experiences like uncomfortable chairs in crowded waiting rooms, hurried pokes and prods by nurses who are worried about mounting paperwork, and rushed visits with a doctor can make appointments unpleasant.
Unfortunately, these experiences aren't isolated, due in large part to a shortage of healthcare professionals. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there were 135,000 vacant registered nurse positions across the country in 2008, and that number is expected to grow to 300,000 by 2020, a significant problem given that there are 1.2 billion annual patient visits.
Telemedicine is innovative technology that uses cellular or Wi-Fi connection to allow medical professionals to communicate with patients remotely. It focuses on reducing inefficiencies and freeing up quality time for the doctor and patient to improve quality of care. Online portals, for example, now allow people to send messages directly to their doctors, getting a response in hours, rather than waiting for the next appointment; and tablets can be used by hospice patients to allow video check-ups that provide caregivers additional access to visual cues in a sick person's health.
"The goal of technology-enabled home care is to prevent or reduce the need for institutional care," says Basel Kayyali, a healthcare and technology consultant for McKinsey & Company, a business consulting company. Though Kayyali says using technology to provide healthcare at home isn't practical in all medical situations, if a condition "can be prevented or addressed by repeatable and standardized step-by-step instructions," then home-care technology may be an option.
Monitoring mother and fetus health
According to Dr. Richard Brennan, vice president of technology policy at the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, obstetricians -- who see pregnant mothers a dozen times during their pregnancies -- are among a growing number of medical professionals utilizing telemedicine to better monitor their patients' health. Using an app that offers specific reminders about maintaining a healthy pregnancy, a mother can monitor her vitals and overall health and transmit that information to her doctor for immediate review. If something looks amiss, a nurse will contact the mother and assess the situation. When the mother checks her own vitals, it saves time during in-office visits to provide better care.
A comprehensive approach to chronic illness
Chronic illnesses that last for months or years are also well-suited to integrating technology, according to Kayyali. "Some chronic illnesses can be treated through monitoring and intervention in a patient's home rather than in higher-cost institutional settings," he says.
Kayyali says diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and fracture prevention are examples of conditions treatable with technology-assisted healthcare. He cautions, however, that technology doesn't replace the need for intensive monitoring. If a patient's situation requires constant attention from a professional, then a medical facility or in-home nurse is necessary.
Managing multiple prescriptions and supplements can be difficult for anyone, and the American Telemedicine Association says that older patients are much more likely to see the emergency room because of prescription misuse. A third of Americans 65 or older take eight or more pills; for those individuals, a simple pillbox separated by the days of the week is not an adequate tool to track medication use.
The hospitals in the Detroit-area Henry Ford Health System have implemented automated, connected dispensers with more than 200 patients. The pill containers work in conjunction with video communication back to nurses who are on call, and the patients receive periodic home visits. Researchers saw a 10 percent drop in missed doses, as well as a decrease in emergency room visits.
Telemedicine has also been used successfully for some time, particularly by assisted-living facilities, when working with patients who have dementia. In the early stages of dementia, a person can still function well enough to stay at home. One unfortunate symptom, however, is a tendency to become lost or disoriented. GPS-location technology helps caregivers monitor the location of a patient at all times. It's a device no larger than a phone, worn on a lanyard or a strap like a watch.
A healthier new world
Technology-assisted medicine is still in its infant stages. Some applications are expensive, as transmitting data over cellular networks can be costly, but the use of Wi-Fi and new developments in hardware are just a few ways that healthcare providers are bringing the cost down for their patients.
While some patients and medical practitionersfear that the use of telemedicine will diminish the quality of healthcare,utilizing technologyis the new normal for the industry. It is important to keep in mind that these technological tools areintended to facilitate and improve communication between patient and doctor,not to replace in-office visits. Technology adoption can be daunting, especially for an already-strainedmedical office. But investing in advancements in telemedicine will mean afruitful return on both the financial investment and the time put back intowhat matters most providing quality care for those who need it most.
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Christopher Walljasper is a Chicago-based freelance writer. He has experience in the mobile technology world and enjoys exploring the ever-changing tech landscape. When he?s not writing, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Annie, daughter, Lucy, and basset hound, Ellie.