Dr. Internet – What Constitutes Telemedicine?

April 6, 2010 at 1:49 pm Leave a comment

Image courtesy of http://www.accessrx.com

I had never heard the term “telemedicine” before today.  I came across it in this Virginia Commonwealth University article about Virginia’s coverage expansion of telemedicine to include most Virginians.  Some quick research later and I discovered that I was familiar with the concept but never realized there was a term for it.

Wikipedia defines telemedicine as “a rapidly developing application of clinical medicine where medical information is transferred through interactive audiovisual media for the purpose of consulting, and sometimes remote medical procedures or examinations.”

This can involve anything from transferring radiology images from one facility to a patient’s general practitioner.  Or it can be a device that a patient must wear to monitor his heart rate or sugar intake.  Or it can even just be a doctor consulting with her patient over the telephone or Skype.  In this age of instant connectivity, increased communication and the expanding capabilities of most phones and computers, it seems likely that telemedicine will increase in popularity and in frequency of use.  This rise of electronic medical interaction, however, can lead to sources of misinformation being mistaken for legitimate health advice or care.

I want to re-iterate that telemedicine, by its very definition, only refers to a health professional using telecommunications to assist a patient in some manner or another (even if he or she isn’t directly communicating with the patient).  Dissemination of health misinformation connects to telemedicine through the ways we seek out and access information – via our smartphones and computers.  As people have increasingly become used to the idea of communicating with others electronically, and as methods for doing so have improved and multiplied in the past decade, telemedicine has become more acceptable and easier for people to utilize.  What’s needed now, though, is for people to realize that the mindset of going to your phone or the computer for health information needs to come with certain caveats and filters.

Many people have used various sites, such as WebMD, to find out more information about health problems and treatments.  With the advent of Web 2.0 and the preponderance of social networking, people have gone from merely looking at websites set up by health professionals, to engaging in conversations about their health issues.  Sometimes these conversations can be enlightening and end up improving the quality of care a patient receives – as well as educating the patient better about whatever is currently afflicting him.  The problem comes in when word of mouth and uneducated ideas are spread throughout the internet – where myth or misunderstanding becomes a certified fact in many people’s minds.

As shown on this recent ABC news item, the majority of health information found online is good, solid information.  But users need to be careful about where they get that information and its validity.  Does it come from a for-profit website trying to sell a particular product?  Is it just an anecdotal statement suggested by a non-health professional on a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter?  What evidence is being used (or sources being cited) to justify whatever statements are being made? The basic questions are – Who is the source of this information? And what, if any, purpose does it serve for them to put this information onto the web?

These questions are important to keep in mind when looking at pretty much any sort of news or information on the web.  From rumors of President Obama’s Kenyan birth, to the recent children’s play version of Scarface, to the various conspiracy theories of 9/11 “truthers,” the internet allows anonymous users to selectively choose information to use in spreading their message.  Assumptions run rampant on the web, and  – with the ease of cross-publishing statements via Twitter, Facebook and other user generated content sites – they easily become part of legitimate conversations people have around serious topics.  In fact, the gossip spreads so quickly and with such conviction that sites such as FactCheck, Snopes and PolitiFact were created just to cut down on the viral rumors that exist on the web.  But we can’t allow such misinformation to enter into conversations about our health because that’s when idle talk becomes truly dangerous.

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