McCallum: Telemedicine

Jul 6, 2016

This spring my brother in another state became seriously ill and required end-of-life care in a nursing home. As his health care proxy, I responded to daily calls and emails from caseworkers, nurses and physicians.

It was daunting work to build a web of medical care and social support from a distance, plus coordinate with his friends who visited him and provided updates. When he went into palliative care I was surprised to receive phone calls at home from not one, but two of his doctors. They coordinated care that provided relief from his symptoms and improved the quality of time he had left.

I thought how lucky he was to have landed in a facility that had such caring doctors on staff who returned phone calls promptly to discuss his condition. We agreed that the end was near, so I made the lengthy drive to Long Island to say good-bye.

Imagine my surprise when an assistant in scrubs entered my brother’s room with a cell phone, held it in front of my brother on video mode, then handed it to me so I could talk to the palliative care doctor I’d spoken to from Vermont about CAT scan results, prognosis and medication. A friendly face appeared on the small video screen. She apologized for the background noise of toddlers playing.

“I’m working from home,” she said.

“Oh, are you nearby?” I asked.

“No, I’m in California.”

Only then did I realize that this oncologist, with her comforting voice and excellent clinical skills, was using telemedicine to monitor my brother’s care remotely.

Electronic communication to exchange medical information and deliver health care began as a way for hospitals to extend support to patients in remote areas. Rapid growth has integrated telemedicine into home health agencies, hospitals and nursing homes. In rural Vermont, patients receive exams, test results, medication and 24/7 monitoring without having to drive great distances. Video conferencing calls transmit data to health centers in Rutland and Burlington, as well as VA hospitals and physicians’ offices.

In Brazil, a country that lacks infrastructure, doctors with expertise in neurology are using telemedicine to diagnose and treat thousands of babies with Zika-related birth defects born far from medical centers.

Fortunately, we’re not facing such a dire health crisis here, yet when medical situations occur in individual lives, Vermonters who live far from regional hospitals can receive the cutting edge medical care they need - often with just a couple of keystrokes.