Health problems and the internet were never meant to go together. An ever recurring problem surfaces when a person happens to type some of their symptoms in their favorite search engine. Something as simple as tapping “flu-like symptoms, pain in shoulder” into Google will return results and suddenly transform the usually sensible internet user into the world’s biggest hypochondriac. People immediately start believing they have what is listed – even if the results show that it’s most likely a fever, and in the most unlikely of chances it may be some form of cancer, almost everybody will always think the worst. What’s even worse, some people begin to cater their symptoms for those listed on the internet – someone may never have had a problem with their sinuses, but if sinus pain is on that list, suddenly it is one of their ongoing ailments. In short, as wonderful as a tool is, people are simply washed over with worry if they attempt to diagnosis their own health problems on the internet, and when they eventually visit the doctor, they look a bit of an idiot to say the least.

However, a group of American doctors are using the power of their internet connections to personally diagnosis health issues for people around the world. The New York Times is reporting on Charlie Martin, an oil rig worker who suddenly suffered a sharp pain in his back, but being in the South China Sea off Malaysia, it was difficult to get a hold of a doctor. However, by contacting the doctor via two-way video link, Dr. Boultinghouse, a medical physician who was at his house in Houston at the time, was able to listen to Charlie Martin’s heart from many thousands of miles away as a paramedic held in place an electronic stethoscope to his chest. Shortly after, Dr. Boultinghouse revealed his diagnosis as a probable kidney stone due to the “extreme pain” – the doctor was right. After testing on the rig, Martin was flew back to Mississippi for treatment for his kidney stone. Dr. Boultinghouse is one of three doctors who work on their own business, NuPhysicia, a company founded in 2007, and who have been using so-called “tele-medicine”, using webcams, microphones and the internet, to help diagnosis the illnesses that clients have.

In this article, there are some pretty scary facts and some rather strange predictions for the future – none of which seem like they could be real and none of which seem as if that would become realistic in the future. The article reports that “health care trends and technological advances” means that the art of tele-medicine is becoming an industry in its own right. According to the US Deperatment of Health and Human Services, one fifth of American people live in a location where their access to primary care is limited and physicians are “scarce”. The article is linking this problem and lack of accessible doctors to the reason why tele-medicine is becoming more popular – rather than drive for quite a while in order to get to a doctor in person, why not switch on your webcam and have the smiling, reassuring face of your doctor instantly who can provide you with a speedy diagnosis. And, no waiting in those boring waiting rooms listening to bad music.

The article reports about how Cisco Systems is supporting trials of tele-medicine webcam links in California, Colorado and New York via high-definition quality video, and according to Datamonitor, the market for tele-medicine in the United States is growing about 10% annually and more than $500 million in revenue has came from this industry in North America this year. Other companies have been using normal webcams to help provide their diagnosis. It’s clear that this market is growing rapidly – and as always, I can spot some benefits and some not so good features of this tele-medicine business. The most obvious pro is the lack of traveling that has to be done; when you’re extremely busy, you’re in pain but just don’t have the chance to slow down, or in the case of Mr. Martin you’re stuck out where access to medical care is not just around the corner, it’s easy enough just to switch on your webcam and get in touch with a doctor instantly. However, a problem I have is how high-quality video transmission is possible. When Cisco Systems is testing out HD-quality video and equipment, is that sent to the doctor or the patient. If it’s sent to the patient, how is it setup, is it safe in their hands, and is it not risky and difficult to send such expensive equipment, which can cost in excess of $40,000, to a patient? Is it sent to their home, or is this method only available for the big industrial locations such as prisons and oil rigs, both known to be clients of tele-medicine schemes, both of which are saving unbelievable amounts, as reported by the article? Or, are they are providing those HD-quality cameras to the doctors and medical centers. The only problem with that is the fact that when I’m in severe pain, I’m not really concerned if I can see the doctor’s face as clear as day – it is the doctor who needs perfect quality video of the patient, not the other way round. So, how does it all work – do both parties have to have access to the video conferencing equipment, or can one use a webcam? Perhaps the article could be slightly clearer.

I do believe that Christine Chang, a health care technology analyst at Datamonitor, is right when she suggests that doctor will be able to take “care of a larger number of patients”, but when she says “better care”, I’m not entirely convinced. There’s nothing like being somewhere in person, and although the doctor will still be able to see their patient, the quality of that transmission depends on the internet connection and the camera of the patient. Some people want a personal feel when they visit a doctor and some want reassurance, and sometimes that can lack when you’re not with somebody in person. Other than that, you’ve got to give some credit to a company who has contracts with nineteen oil rigs around the world and to Dr. Boultinghouse who managed to diagnosis a kidney stone from thousands of miles away. The article does reference that the tele-medicine can use expensive equipment or something as simple as a webcam, but where does a diagnosis take place – in the home or at a specialized booth? Not everybody has access to these facilities, especially some of the older generation, and the majority do not have access to the latest technology equipment. The article cites that equipment for the doctors can cost thousands upon thousands of doctors, while two other companies, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint are using “lower-cost Internet webcam” technology to do their diagnosis, saying that doctors will not be prepared to pay the amounts that tele-medicine costs for equipment.

Discussing tele-medicine in general, I can see the view points of those for and against. According to the article, Georgia state prisons save an average $500 in transportation costs and officers’ pay every time a prisoner can be treated by tele-medicine rather than having a doctor treat them face-to-face. These are some amazing savings for the government and for the state so that tax payers money can be pumped back into the people rather into those who decide they want to evade the rules of society. There is a great deal of speed and convenience, too. However, with start up costs for high quality video, the lack of internet connection that some people have and the lack of personal treatment and feeling a patient would receive, there is two sides to every story. Teleconferencing is an amazing way of connecting people from around the world for business meetings – for medical appointments, I’m not too sure.

What do you think about tele-medicine? Is it a good idea? Would it be convenient for you? Would you rather go and see a doctor personally? Do you like in rural areas and don’t have immediate access to a doctor? Do you use tele-medicine? Let us know your thoughts, leave a comment.