A trip to the doctor’s office can be a real challenge for many people. Those in rural areas may have to drive hours to see their physician. In the winter, road conditions can prevent both patients and doctors from being able to make their appointments. With that in mind, many medical professionals are engaging in the practice of telemedicine.
Telemedicine allows physicians to examine patients using the internet. Services such as Skype, FaceTime or other web video programs permit doctors to actually see patients that they are unable to meet with in person. Patients simply set up a time to meet with their doctor online, and have a quick appointment to discuss any issues they may be having.
Kaiser Permanente’s South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City, California, is already piloting this new form of a doctor’s appointment for their orthopedic surgeon. The trial program seeks to address the growing demand for medical services, according to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who approved the program.
Serious Patient Safety Concerns in the Practice of Telemedicine
While this is certainly convenient, the practice has raised some concerns. Doctors do not actually have physical contact with the patient at the time of the examination, and are unable to monitor the patient’s vital signs. Items that may need further testing could go undetected until the patient actually visits the doctor in person. Even for patients that a physician has had several opportunities to examine in the past, changes in condition may make these prior examinations ineffective when deciding a new treatment plan.
Also, the technology may not be able to completely guarantee that patients and doctors are on the same page. There may be some sort of unknown malfunction on either end which could cause critical information to be lost. A physician may ask a question which a patient does not hear or does not completely understand, yet he or she answers anyway. This could cause physicians to misdiagnosis the patient’s condition and might also lead to medication errors.
The technology also might leave doctors at risk for claims that they violated their patient’s privacy if the program they use does not keep medical information secure. Patients need to be informed about the potential for this information to be discovered.
Telemedicine is becoming a more common and accepted method of seeing patients. The number of physicians practicing this way is continually increasing. Both patients and doctors need to be aware of the risks associated with this type of treatment.