Telemedicine must be embraced to improve and save lives

Just as technology has changed the way we shop, book a taxi, hold business meetings, and even find a parking spot, so too is it transforming the way we access healthcare, wherever we are in the world.

Today’s digitally connected consumers have higher expectations of how their health concerns should be addressed. Patients want to be seen quickly, ideally by a leading medical specialist, at a time that’s convenient for them. They want less time in waiting rooms or juggling schedules to travel for appointments. They want a stop to endless referrals, and having to explain symptoms to each new doctor in the process.

Significant advances in telemedicine are both meeting those expectations and reshaping the way we deliver the best care to even more people.

Telemedicine is the delivery of clinical services across telecoms and IT devices. It’s a subset of a wider virtual care or telehealth platform, originally developed for doctors to be able to treat patients living in rural and remote areas. Today, application of these technologies has gone above and beyond this initial vision – and beyond even what we imagined could be possible.

Mention telemedicine in conversation and most will think of talking to a doctor via video-link without leaving the comfort of home. Or of booking a doctor’s appointment or repeat prescription at a local surgery online.

But telemedicine is being applied in all areas and at all levels of healthcare, from sharing stored patient data such as radiology images between far-flung hospitals, to delivering surgical expertise through video training, to post-operative visits. Telemedicine is being used in hospital settings to enhance care of the sickest patients in ICUs, and for home monitoring of patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart failure – so-called ‘automated hovering’ that helps people stay well even when they’re not in our wards or offices.

Teletrauma and telestroke programmes can swiftly link specialists to help treat a patient with critical, life-threatening injuries. And telegenetic counselling programmes are helping patients who can’t easily reach specialists in urban areas to map lifesaving plans when they learn that they carry dangerous mutations that heighten their risk of cancer.

For the medical profession, telemedicine facilitates the speedy dissemination of pioneering research, sharing specialist resources when challenges such as funding, distance and lack of skilled staff are an issue. After all, bold leaps forward in the treatment of aggressive and life-threatening diseases are limited if that expertise remains confined within the walls of a research programme.

In the United States, healthcare practices have been progressive in adopting telemedicine to enhance doctor-patient engagement and provide patient education. And now, programmes such as our newly launched Penn Medicine London are combining both traditional and virtual methods to deliver more effective diagnosis and treatment.

The first of its kind in the UK, the new programme will transform current practise through the provision of a remote second opinion service. That means enhanced access for UK patients to Penn Medicine physicians in the U.S. at the forefront of clinical research and patient care, without the need to travel across the Atlantic to seek their counsel.

For patients that receive care at Penn Medicine, we can use telemedicine to provide follow-up care and maintain continuity with their care team, which is critically for both the best patient experience and outcomes.

We’re excited, too, to facilitate new training collaborations and education with UK medical teams around leading-edge treatments like proton beam radiation and emerging immunotherapies for rare and aggressive cancers – including the world-first personalised cellular therapy Kymriah, which our physicians and scientists developed here at Penn Medicine. Philadelphia is home for us, but health care improvement is an international pursuit that knows no boundaries – and it’s one we’re excited to build on in the UK.

The potential growth and application of telemedicine worldwide is both exciting and staggering, heralding a faster, more streamlined and efficient way for patients to take greater control of their own health and make better choices about their own treatment, no matter where they live.

Ralph W. Muller is CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, and a former visiting fellow in the King’s Fund.