Telemedicine is broadly defined as the use of telecommunications and information technologies to provide clinical healthcare when healthcare professionals and patients are not at the same physical location. Telemedicine leverages capabilities such as voice, real-time video, chat, document and resource sharing, and sometimes specialized equipment that can be attached to telecom devices to aid in interactive evaluations, education and training, robotic surgery, or specialist consultations. Telemedicine can be used to provide education and training, health evaluations, and ongoing monitoring for chronic disease management. Telemedicine helps eliminate distance and physical barriers. While telemedicine was initially used to improve access to medical services for rural communities, today’s telemedicine goes beyond distance to provide healthcare in situations that present a variety of barriers.

In the US, approximately 15 million people across 25 states will receive care this year delivered via telemedicine. Influential organizations within healthcare are taking action to enable telemedicine. Walgreens, the nation’s largest drugstore chain, is providing smartphone applications to patients and doctors. Anthem, a Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer, and United Heath Group are making their own telemedicine services available for nonemergency care and expect to reach 40 million people this year.

Have you ever stopped to think about what makes this possible? Unified communications is the advanced technology that enables telemedicine. UC includes a collection of services (e.g., voice, chat, video, document sharing), integrated together, to increase productivity, efficiency and quality of interactions and business processes. There are several scenarios in practice in telemedicine.

Healthcare providers such as nurse practitioners are equipped with smartphones and tablets as they go out into the field to provide various healthcare evaluations and chronic disease management. These devices have UC apps on them that enable video, chat, and document sharing for example. Patients can be provided with these same applications for ongoing access to healthcare providers as needed. Monitoring can be set up via these devices to send automatic alerts for such things as blood pressure, heart rate, or glucose monitoring. Reminders can be sent for patients to take certain required medications, and devices are available that can be monitored to report when they have been accessed and meds have been dispensed.

Many people are familiar with panic buttons and lifeline alerts. These are early examples of mobile health or telemedicine. Today’s technology still includes such devices, monitoring and alerts, but far more advanced capabilities have also been introduced. Traditional solutions in this space are “tethered” and require users to remain within a certain distance of a “base unit” to remain within range for the service to work. For tethered solutions, the use of UC capabilities opens up capabilities to communicate directly with healthcare providers via voice or chat. They can also launch video capability with the click of a single button, enabling a healthcare provider to see the patient and communicate with them face to face.

Untethered solutions are also now available that alleviate the proximity constraint, enabling more mobility. These solutions leverage GPS and track locations and falls, and some devices and applications are also able to track a number of other healthcare concerns, such as blood pressure, glucose level, etc. As unified communications have also become mobile and there is increased reliability of the data network, it becomes increasingly possible to provide the full suite of capabilities in a mobile environment.

And still taking another step into telemedicine, peripheral devices can be attached to smartphones for example, to take video of perhaps a child’s ear when an ear infection is suspected. Being one of the most common childhood ailments, in a new era (today!), these devices could be used to take video, which would then be sent via UC to the doctor’s office for review. The same UC app could be used to communicate back with the patient/parent to confirm the diagnosis and order prescriptions. Some states have regulation requiring patient evaluations before writing a prescription. UC helps meet these regulatory requirements in some cases.

In Summary

Telemedicine strives to improve quality of care, increase productivity of practitioners, reduce health care costs, and enhance the patient experience. These goals are in line with those of unified communications across business, resulting in a perfect match for UC-enabled telemedicine solutions. Teleheath varies widely from voice communication between patient and caregiver, to video-enabled physical evaluations, to robotic surgeries, to chronic disease monitoring. These capabilities are accomplished with unified communication technologies. Together, unified communications and telemedicine provide improved and wider reaching healthcare, and put the patient more in control of their own wellbeing.