Telemedicine an option to in-person visits

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Telemedicine an option to in-person visits

Sixty years ago University of Nebraska doctors established a two-way television link with a state hospital to perform psychiatric consultations. At the same time, the US space program pursued similar technology to provide healthcare to astronauts in space.

These efforts and others launched the modern era of telemedicine. The World Health Organization defines telemedicine as “healing at a distance,” using technology to increase access to care and medical information.

Telemedicine is especially beneficial to rural communities, which face healthcare provider shortages and limited access to medical specialties. Providing rural communities with access to medical services was the basis of the University of Nebraska’s early research into video communications.

For rural and urban dwellers alike, telemedicine offers an option to traditional in-person medical visits. These “virtual” visits have become increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people become conscious of social distancing. Instead of an office setting, patients can participate in online visits through the use of a smartphone, tablet, or computer with video capabilities and internet access.

Telemedicine’s increased use during COVID-19 also is due to changes in federal guidelines. Rural health clinics are now eligible for reimbursement of telemedicine services and patients can participate in those visits from their homes. Previously, a personal residence did not qualify as an “eligible originating site,” meaning patients had to travel to hospitals or clinics to participate in virtual visits with distant providers.

Today, 76 percent of US hospitals are using telemedicine compared to 35 percent in 2010, according to the American Hospital Association (AHA). While the AHA supports further expanding telemedicine, it warns that access to broadband technology is still needed in rural areas. Nearly 40 percent of people living in rural areas lack internet access.

The American Medical Association believes increased telemedicine use during COVID-19 has created a lasting impact on the healthcare industry. It predicts the technology will continue to be used more widely, even after the pandemic ends.