In 1903, Dutch physiologist Willem Einthoven recorded the heart signals of hospital patients roughly a mile away, using the first practical electrocardiogram, which he invented from a string galvanometer and telephone wires.
That fundamental point-to-point connection marked the beginning of telemedicine.
Today, telemedicine—literally "healing at a distance"—is everywhere and has many forms, a reflection of the rapid advances in both medical and communications technology since Einthoven's time.
Through telemedicine, doctors and other health professionals provide an array of important clinical services—from diagnosis to imaging to surgery to counseling—to patients in remote locations. You can find telemedicine (sometimes referred to as "telehealth" in certain contexts) in hospital operating rooms, in rural community health centers, in school-based clinics, in ambulances, and in nursing homes.
Fundamentally, we tend to think of telemedicine as a way to overcome a serious distance barrier between a patient and a healthcare provider. This point-to-point connection supports a critical function. There are cases when a patient requires the care of a particular doctor at a particular time, and technology is the best way to facilitate that interaction.
And yet, we can think bigger about telemedicine and what it can do to address some of our healthcare system's most pressing challenges.
How can we expand access to care for whole populations? How do we create a conduit for the latest research, best practices and care improvements to move from university medical centers out into communities?
Policymakers have recently been asking similar questions. They have explored measures to boost the use of telemedicine that include increased investment in broadband and expanded insurance coverage of telehealth services.
Significantly, at the end of 2016 Congress unanimously approved legislation focused on emerging technology-enabled collaborative learning models. The new law directs HHS to assess these models and their ability to improve patient care and provider education, and to report its findings to Congress, along with recommendations for supporting their spread.
Their distinguishing feature is that they expand the point-to-point connection that is the foundation of telemedicine. Instead of connecting one person to one person for a single interaction, they connect many to many, on an ongoing basis. To address system challenges like access, quality and dissemination of best practices, we need these more powerful linkages.
Project ECHO, a knowledge-sharing enterprise that works both across the U.S. and globally, offers a good example of how technology-enabled collaborative learning models work. Launched initially in New Mexico to help patients with hepatitis C gain access to specialty treatment, Project ECHO connects a team of specialists at a university medical center "hub" with teams of primary-care clinicians at community health centers—or "spokes"—across a state or region. This connection is recurring: Typically, it takes place every week or every other week, during telementoring clinics that operate like virtual grand rounds.
This ongoing, many-to-many connection moves knowledge and expertise from universities to providers who care for patients in rural and underserved communities.
Once shared, that knowledge takes on a life of its own, growing and moving in all directions. Primary-care clinicians learn from their specialist mentors at the university hubs, but they also learn from each other. And by applying the knowledge they gain in the field, they produce new knowledge, which they then relay to their specialist and primary-care colleagues in their learning community.
This open, multidirectional sharing of knowledge and expertise creates new local capacity that didn't previously exist to treat devastating conditions like opioid addiction, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, HIV and hepatitis. In New Mexico, for example, the number of providers certified to treat opioid use disorder with buprenorphine has increased more than tenfold—from 36 in 2005 to 375 in 2014—following the launch of an ECHO for treating addiction.
These emerging models produce virtual communities of learning and practice that embrace all members of the healthcare team. They are the latest point on the telemedicine continuum that began with the point-to-point connection achieved by Einthoven's pioneering electrocardiogram. Building out the connection established under telemedicine into an ever-expanding knowledge-sharing network can create new potential to improve health and save lives.
Dr. David Blumenthal is president of the Commonwealth Fund, a national philanthropy engaged in independent research on health and social issues. He led the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology from 2009 to 2011.