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What is telemedicine, and how does it affect health IT?

Last week more than 3,000 people gathered in San Antonio for the 15th Annual International Meeting of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) to talk about “outcomes and evidence for telemedicine and telehealth.” Just what is telemedicine, and how does it fit into the overall health IT picture?

According to the ATA, telemedicine has been around for more than 40 years, beginning with hospitals that extended care to remote areas. The ATA defines telemedicine as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients’ health status.” The terms telemedicine and telehealth are sometimes used interchangeably, but telehealth is a broader term, and does not necessarily involve clinical services.

These are some examples of telemedicine: A radiologist in Massachusetts reviews digital images from a patient in Florida, a patient consults with a specialist over live video, and a homebound patient is monitored remotely. Telemedicine also encompasses education and networking, allowing remote health care professionals to earn continuing education credits, and giving patients access to online support groups and specialized health information.

Telemedicine intersects with health IT in many areas– interoperability, infrastructure, privacy and security, for example. A radiologist reviewing X-rays must be properly authenticated and connected to a secure network. Data collected from remote patient monitoring has to be stored. Telemedicine, like electronic health records, or EHRs,  requires a robust health IT infrastructure.

One of my co-workers got to experience a demo of telemedicine at the HIMSS10 conference in March. Described as “a TB clinic in a box,” the Remi-d digital chest X-ray system is designed for areas dealing with a tuberculosis epidemic. Watch this video to see an example of telemedicine in action.

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