Telemedicine is a vastly growing and increasingly important element of today’s healthcare system. Real-time care through audio, video, and digital messaging allows for medical professionals to accurately and effectively diagnose symptoms, treat illness or disease, and monitor a patient's progress and vitals remotely. Telemedicine allows patients who need specialized care, but are not well enough to travel often or live too far away from the closest treatment centers, to receive the care they need.
Telehealth has transformed the way people receive healthcare through the conjoined efforts of the science, medical, and technology industries, along with assistance from federal agencies. From general care to mental health and counseling, the benefits of telehealth are unparalleled. But perhaps the greatest impact has been felt within the cancer community through the continued development of teleoncology.
Benefits of Telehealth
Since the integration of the internet in the early 2000s, technology has changed the way we do everything, including healthcare. Telehealth is providing an easier way for patients to interact with their primary healthcare providers, specialists and other professionals. What once required a patient to make an appointment in advance, find transportation to a medical center, and sit in a waiting room before even talking to a doctor can now be done completely from the comfort of one's home. This makes a world of difference for those who are too ill to travel, or do not have the means to acquire transport, especially from rural areas or locations far from medical and specialist centers.
Today, more than 30 states require health insurers to cover telehealth expenses. Examples of costs may include lab testing, audio or video calls with a nurse or doctor, home delivery of prescriptions, or the purchase of in-home equipment required for monitoring. As a benefit, hospitals experience fewer emergency room visits, clearing up space for critical emergencies. Additionally, patients with weakened immune systems do not have to be subjected to the germs and viruses that may contaminate a medical center waiting room.
The impacts of telehealth are not only felt by Americans at home, but overseas as well. The Department of Defense (DoD) has been a pioneer of telehealth for the last 20 years. Most recently, the agency has used the technology to assist soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from traumatic injuries.
According to Maj. Gen. Richard Thomas, chief medical officer with the Defense Health Agency, “The military was able to link care providers at the remote locations with subject matter experts in the U.S. to provide wounded soldiers the health care required to treat injuries.”
The DoD has pioneered many aspects of telehealth, setting the standard for how other agencies and industries address mobile health solutions. For example, Thomas says healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente, “has taken some of the DoD capabilities and modeled these tools to reach out to its own customers virtually.”
While the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs focus on telehealth between provider and patient, over the last several years the Air Force has been taking telehealth into its own hands by working toward the growth and development of teleimaging. With special focus on teleradiology, telecardiology, tele-endoscopy, and telepathology, the Air Force is gaining momentum on the transmission, interpretation and archiving of images and documents, allowing these files to be available to any physician. Easy document sharing will allow for better care and treatment of patients seeing multiple doctors and specialists.
Telehealth Impact on Cancer Care (Teleoncology)
The idea of technical data sharing is one of the driving factors behind Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot 2020, an initiative to one day find a cure for cancer. Information sharing is especially crucial with clinical trials. In prior years, many patients could not participate in clinical trials due to poor health caused by accelerated stages of cancer, making it difficult to travel to trial sites. Emerging technology has given clinical trials remote availability, with monitoring and testing conducted through a patient’s local facility. This is a breakthrough for those suffering from rare diseases like mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It is rare, aggressive, and difficult to diagnose. Once an accurate diagnosis is made, patients are typically given less than a year to live and are often far too ill to travel for clinical trial treatment.
The Cancer Moonshot has made progress possible through collaboration by breaking down walls and information siloing that once existed in the medical community. The development of the Genomic Data Commons has streamlined accessibility to clinical trial and research data, so doctors and experts worldwide can recognize patterns and make better informed decisions regarding diagnosis and patient treatment plans.
Teleoncology is helping cancer patients experience shorter wait times, lessening the need to wait weeks, or even months, for an open appointment. Additionally, care and treatment from the world’s best specialists is accessible to anyone, not just to those living locally or who are well enough to travel. Patients can be sent digital reminders to help them stay on top of their care regimens, while pain treatments may be conducted remotely from the comfort of their home.
At-home treatment is also making strides when it comes to supporting a patient’s mental health. According to the National Cancer Institute, up to 25 percent of cancer patients suffer from depression and could benefit from the counsel of a psychologist. Telehealth technology gives cancer patients an opportunity to receive that counsel remotely, without having to worry about conflicting specialist appointments or transport issues.
Remote medicine is not only beneficial for the patient, but for doctors as well. It gives physicians who are not currently working due to retirement, family matters or disability the opportunity to continue practicing as consultants.
Telehealth is expected to keep making strides across all physical and mental health practices, but oncology may be where it can have the largest impact. Technology will continue to efficiently use information, data, and resources to save and improve the lives of those undergoing cancer treatment, and even for those in remission. One in three cancer patients does not get the appropriate level of care they need. Only 30 percent of counties in the U.S. have an oncologist, but with the help of telemedicine, patients everywhere will have access to high quality treatment and care.
Emily Walsh is an advocate for mesothelioma cancer awareness. She is passionate about holistic complementary therapies in cancer treatment and sharing information through social media and blogging.