The Rise of Telemedicine

Web doctors, telemedicine — whatever you call it, it’s now part of health care and could become more common than doctor visits in the next five years.


YOU’RE STARTING TO get a rash. It’s itchy, unsightly and unfamiliar, so like most people, panicked, you go on WebMD. Three slideshows of oozing wounds later, you’re convinced it’s a brown recluse bite and death is imminent.

It’s a common story. But such internet-inspired worry can now be avoided thanks to a growing trend in health care — telemedicine. Used by Kaiser Permanente and many other medical and insurance providers and included in plans for the MarinHealth Medical Center’s new facility, telemedicine lets patients with a computer or smartphone consult a medical professional without getting out of bed.

Telemedicine is a way to interact with a health care provider digitally rather than in person. The technology is frequently used for follow-up, managing chronic conditions and medications, specialist consultations and a variety of other services.

While telemedicine’s roots date to the 1950s, when a handful of hospitals and university medical centers sought ways to share information and images by phone, the turn of the century brought a leap forward. In 2002 in Dallas, Texas, former NASA surgeon and engineer G. Byron Brooks co-founded Teladoc, which in 2005 became the first national telehealth provider. The practice of telemedicine got another big boost in the 2010s with smartphones that could transmit high-quality video.

Soon the Apple Watch and Fitbit, new software and other “internet of things” devices accelerated the industry even more, expanding options to deliver remote care to patients in their homes, workplaces or assisted living facilities. Increasingly, health care organizations adopted self-tracking and cloud-based technologies, and more than half of all U.S. hospitals now use some form of virtual care.

That will soon include the state-of-the-art MarinHealth Medical Center (formerly Marin General). “Telemedicine is having a bigger and bigger role in patient care,” says Lee Domanico, CEO of MarinHealth. “In our new hospital, for example, information about medications, care routines, discharge information and more can be shared with patients via two-way visual communication equipment at the bedside.”

The Marin hospital had already incorporated methods like two-way conferencing with off-site neurologists for rapidly evaluating stroke symptoms and an off-site eICU for backup monitoring of intensive care patients. But plans for the new incarnation call for security cameras, a large-screen TV and a tablet device in every patient room; patient-scheduled video sessions with the hospital pharmacist; and two-way phone visual calling between patient and doctor. “The future promises even more exciting uses of this technology,” adds Domanico. The hospital will be among the first in the country to adopt a virtual presence system for inpatient treatment.

There’s a host of reasons medical facilities find the technology attractive. Telemedicine improves patient safety in the hospital and gives more people access to services. With a rapidly aging population, need for care is outpacing the number of health care providers. The new MarinHealth Medical Center building plans include the same number of beds, but a patient care area that’s three times bigger; virtual technology may help nurses and doctors cover this larger ground without compromising quality of care.

Another big draw: telemedicine saves money. Patients can get questions answered promptly, take less time off work to see a doctor or travel to a specialist, and avoid exposure to other potentially contagious patients. Providers can function more efficiently, improve patient follow-up, avoid the hassle of missed appointments and increase overall profits.

Some specialists were early telemedicine adopters and now have a competitive edge. Have you seen advertisements for “text therapists”? Telepsychiatry is popular with clients who appreciate the convenience and privacy; dermatology and physical rehabilitation, with their visual components, lend themselves to telemedicine as well.

Still, it’s no panacea. Some ailments do require an in-person visit — and skipping that step could lead to misdiagnosis and harm. But as the industry works to improve the technology and its capabilities and potential, telemedicine is looking more and more essential in today’s health care landscape.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s February 2020 issue with the headline: “Virtual Care”.

Kasia PowlowskaKasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include traveltrendsmushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction, and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is a never-ending endeavor.

Categories: FYI, Health