But what about the average consumer? The coming pandemic looms ominously on horizon. But this ominous shadow may actually be a new dawn for telemedicine.
The SARS outbreak in Toronto and Singapore proved that quarantine does not work but that “Social Distancing” does. The message in Toronto was clear and simple. “Don’t go to hospitals and healthcare institutions unless you want to catch SARS. That’s where the SARS is.” In Toronto it worked. The SARS epidemic fizzled out after only a few short weeks of social distancing.
But in the United States, emergency rooms, hospitals and urgent care centers are the destination for the treatment of after-hours illnesses and sudden onsets of the flu. Pandemic flu will strike like a blitzkrieg across the world. People will fall ill in a matter of hours not days. Doctors’ offices will be overflowing with the sick and those who are afraid that they will become sick. The default will be the urgent care centers emergency rooms and hospitals of the nation. This is where the disease will be concentrated and like with SARS in Toronto this is where it will be most likely that you will become ill.
Here’s where telemedicine has the advantage, if somebody, anybody can produce a telemedicine technology solution within a reasonable price range for the average consumer to buy. What would be needed would be a high resolution web camera and a simple handheld stethoscope-like device that could produce high fidelity sound in real time. A web based portal for physicians would also be needed. The examination would need to be completable in real time.
Imagine a simple device with a webcam and a modified microphone similar to that already found on electronic stethoscopes used by physicians coupled with an electronic blood pressure cuff. Now imagine this device providing information in real time to the physician a rudimentary medical examination, a kind of “telemedicine triage.” With this consumer priced equipment, an examination could be performed and basic healthcare decisions such as the need for home healthcare nursing, antiviral medication prescriptions, or simple chicken soup could be made. This “telemedicine triage” would ensure that only the sickest of the sick would go to the hospital guaranteeing that the spread of the disease was decreased because fewer people would be sent home from the hospital not sick, but now contaminated.
Of course Medicare, Medicaid and other healthcare insurances would have to begin to actually pay physicians to perform telemedicine services. While the codes exist reimbursement is slow and difficult. Telemedicine takes more time than a regular examination and time does have a value.
Will anybody step up to the plate? That depends on demand for “telemedicine triage” by the public, the demand for a consumer telemedicine product and, unfortunately, the ability of physicians to get paid for what they do. On the other hand, the cost if telemedicine triage does not become is that the future pandemic will rage on.