Although remote healthcare services may appear like a recent trend, the practice of telemedicine dates back over a century. The history of telemedicine and telehealth closely follows the history and evolution of communication and information technologies.
As health is a primary concern, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that medical professionals quickly recognized the potential of newly emerging technologies and sought to leverage them to facilitate the delivery of healthcare services.
Let's take a closer look at the history of telemedicine or telehealth and answer several questions:
- When did telemedicine begin?
- How has the delivery of remote healthcare changed throughout the years?
- What is the current state of telemedicine and telehealth?
Since telemedicine is synonymous with remote care delivery, it is a more familiar term among healthcare providers. However, telehealth is gaining more popularity today as it appropriately describes the latest digital health trends to deliver healthcare services to patients.
While telemedicine refers to applying any technology in the clinical setup, telehealth describes the delivery of services. Still, many professionals use these two terms interchangeably. And as we tackle the history of telemedicine, we may use the terms interchangeably as well.
Let’s jump right into it.
When did telemedicine begin?
Telemedicine, a term coined in the 1970s by Thomas Bird, literally translates as “healing at a distance” — from Latin “medicus” and Greek “tele.”
The inventions of communication tools like the telegraph and the telephone jumpstarted the practice of telemedicine. Healthcare professionals used various ways of communicating medical information beforehand, such as signal flags on ships to warn about a potentially contagious disease. However, these communication tools were extensions of human messengers rather than transmitting medical data over large distances.
The introduction of telegraphs and telephones brought forth telemedicine or telehealth. These two inventions technically allowed anyone to send messages or communicate over large distances, although the telegraph required some specialized knowledge to operate.
The military immediately recognized and took advantage of the sheer communication speed of telegraphs and telephones for healthcare purposes, and the expansion eventually included everyday communication.
The Early Days of Telemedicine — Telephone and Telegraph
The telegraph was a powerful invention and a game-changer in warfare.
The first recorded use of electronic information for health-related purposes in the United States was during the Civil War.
Apart from facilitating strategic planning, the telegraph allowed the Union Army to:
- Order medical supplies
- Communicate injuries on the battlefield
- Report casualties
In his book “The Telegraph and the Beginnings of Telemedicine in Australia,” Robert H. Eikelboom provides evidence that suggests the use of the telegraph in Australia in 1874 to assist the medical care of a wounded person.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, paving the way for a connected world. Although we take phones for granted today, back then, this revolutionary invention had an enormous impact on people’s lives.
It didn’t take long for the telephone to find its use for healthcare. An 1879 report from The Lancet journal expressed the potential of the telephone in healthcare. It described how a physician listened to a baby’s cough through a phone receiver to help determine whether the baby had croup.
In the 20th century, telemedicine and telehealth history only grew.
Over the years, the telephone network rapidly expanded adjacent to improved signal quality. Home devices had telephone numbers in addition to other new features to the network. In the 1900s, the telephone became widely used to communicate at a distance.
How did this evolution of the telephone network impact healthcare services delivery? Here’s a telemedicine history timeline following the development and flourishment of remote care delivery in the 20th century.
1905: Heart Sound Transmission
In 1905, Willem Einthoven transmitted heart sounds from a hospital to his laboratory using the telephone.
1910: Electrocardiography and Remote Diagnosis
In 1910, cardiologists in New York published the first American electrocardiography review. The report described the successful transmission of electrocardiograms (ECGs) through cables from the wards to the ECG room.
The same year, Sidney Brown, an English engineer, made tweaks to the telephone that supposedly made it possible for doctors to listen to the sound of a stethoscope a patient held miles away and arrive at an accurate diagnosis.
The 1920s: Two-Way Radio Communication
The Haukeland Hospital in Norway started using two-way radio communication in 1920 to connect physicians with ships and enable medical treatment of seafarers. Several countries followed suit and embraced two-way radio communication in the following decade.
In 1923, police forces in Victoria, Australia, began relying on mobile two-way radios to communicate with colleagues while on duty and report injuries in need of medical attention.
1924: A Prediction for Telemedicine as We Know It Today
The Radio News magazine in April 1924 introduced the supposedly first notion of telemedicine. The magazine used the term “radio doctor” to describe remote communication between a patient and a physician through television and a microphone.
Although Radio News illustrated a patient receiving medical care via a television, this was the magazine’s imagination of the future since the majority of Americans didn’t have TVs in their homes at the time.
The magazine’s idea was the first prediction of remote care delivery that introduced two-way video communication in healthcare, shedding light on the future possibilities of telemedicine. There are limitations regarding the types of services doctors could offer over the phone. However, with two-way video, they could treat patients for various conditions that required a physical exam.
Technology still had to come a long way before two-way live video encounters between doctors and patients were available. Making this prediction a reality was the scaling of telecommunications infrastructure to accommodate large-scale telemedicine projects.
1959: The First Use of Two-Way Video Communication for Telemedicine Occurs
As the 1950s were drawing to an end, two-way video communication became a reality for telemedicine and cemented in history.
The University of Nebraska spearheaded the first use of two-way video communication for telemedicine in the United States. In 1959, clinicians used interactive video communication to transmit neurological examinations across campus to medical students. It is universally considered the first use of real-time video communication in telemedicine.
Various universities across the country followed suit, leveraging telemedicine in academic settings, mainly focusing on transmitting medical data like X-rays, ECGs, stethoscope sounds, etc.
The 1960s: Wide Adoption of Telemedicine in the United States
A breakthrough in telemedicine happened in the 1960s. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Lockheed Corporation, and the Indian Health Service launched a wide-scale telemedicine project.
The main idea behind the Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care (STARPAHC) project was to provide easier access to healthcare to American Indian reservations, leveraging the same telecommunications technologies initially intended for NASA astronauts.
Satellite communication greatly expanded telemedicine opportunities and facilitated healthcare delivery in rural areas. In 1972, NASA's Applications Technology Satellite (ATS-1) enabled telecommunications access for various smaller communities in Alaska, including larger hospitals. The success of STARPHAC and the advanced satellite communication capabilities led to the significant expansion of telemedicine in the following years.
The 1980s: Radiology as the First Medical Specialty to Fully Embrace Telemedicine
The success of STARPHAC prompted various other government-supported telemedicine projects and initiatives.
The main uses of telemedicine in the 70s and 80s included:
- Providing medical care to patients in war zones
- Providing medical care to remote research stations in the Arctic and the Antarctic
- Providing healthcare services to inmates at correctional facilities without having to transport them to a hospital
- Transmitting radiology images
In the ‘80s, radiology stepped up as the first medical specialty to fully embrace telemedicine. Grant-sponsored projects largely influenced the success of telemedicine adoption that enabled radiologists to showcase the efficiency and benefits of remote care. That led to radiologists relying on telemedicine more than other medical professionals. The technology allowed them to receive images for telemedicine consultations.
And with the Internet, telemedicine and telehealth history grew exponentially into what we know today.
The Internet transforms telehealth in more ways than one.
Information and communication technologies kept advancing in the 1980s with the Internet, affecting telemedicine.
In 1983, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), an early packet switching network, adopted the Internet protocol suite, commonly known as TCP/IP. The newly discovered technology prompted bright minds all around the globe to begin assembling the “network of networks” that gradually became what we now know as the Internet.
The TCP/IP was the backbone of the Internet. Seven years later, in 1990, the online ecosystem took on a more tangible form when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. People worldwide had access to online data via websites and hyperlinks.
The advancement of the Internet greatly facilitated the adoption of telemedicine across the globe, as it made transmitting medical data and communicating using live video infinitely easier. Until the 1990s, even the most successful telemedicine projects didn’t survive for over two decades, mainly because the equipment was bulky, expensive, offered limited capabilities, and required extensive training to operate correctly.
The Internet made remote healthcare delivery a lot easier and more cost-effective. It undoubtedly improved telemedicine services' effectiveness and range by introducing new ways to transmit data over large distances.
The Internet allows doctors to accomplish the following:
- Transfer large data files at incredible speeds
- Acquire the necessary equipment for telemedicine at much lower costs
- Connect with their remote patients more easily
Everyone quickly recognized the immense power of the Internet. This propelled a lot of effort and resources into improving Internet infrastructure. The Internet made an unbelievable amount of information available at incredible speed.
As people started embracing the impact of the Internet in health technology, they became more informed about health issues and aware of the variety of healthcare options at their disposal.
However, in the early days of the Internet, the connection was painfully slow. Dial-up Internet required a free phone line, and from today’s perspective, it took forever to load a single web page.
As more people recognized the capabilities of the Internet, they voiced their demands for faster speed, more reliable connections, and lower prices. As a result, a variety of improvements happened, including:
- Faster communication speed
- Greater availability
- Improved information storage
- Standard formats for data transmission
- Increased security
- Better equipment
With the introduction of broadband Internet, the adoption of telemedicine and telehealth got a boost since doctors and patients had all the tools at their disposal to conduct virtual appointments with ease.
Today, doctors rely on modern equipment such as wearable devices and digital cameras to assist them in remote patient examinations and deliver telemedicine services in real-time.
Moreover, the Internet allows medical facilities to create electronic medical records (EMRs), facilitating healthcare administration.
And what may have been the greatest influence on the expansion of telemedicine in the United States and its widespread adoption that isn’t slowing down was the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic increases the call for telemedicine.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic spurring its popularity, healthcare providers in the United States have been using telemedicine to treat patients remotely, but only on a minimal level.
There was a slow growth of telemedicine due to the lack of uniform coverage policies across states. With the national health crisis brought by the pandemic hitting hard, the federal government has taken necessary steps to make providing and receiving care via telemedicine easier.
Today, most healthcare providers in the US are either partially or entirely involved with telemedicine. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted these practitioners to provide remote healthcare services to their patients while addressing safety issues.
There were three primary benefits of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Limited in-person contact
- Ensured continuity of care
- Served as triage to help determine patients who needed care the most
Safety Issues During the Pandemic
One of the essential strategies to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 is physical distancing measures; this is where telemedicine helped.
Telemedicine via live video keeps healthcare professionals and patients safe from exposure to the virus. Both parties didn’t have to travel to clinics or hospital institutions to provide and receive care.
The unnecessary contacts of medical professionals and patients were vital during the COVID-19 crisis to mitigate the rapid progression of the virus that greatly affected many individuals.
Non-COVID Patients Continue to Receive Care at Their Homes
Telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the healthcare providers’ first line of defense to slow the spread of the virus and continue providing services for mild cases to the most urgent patients.
Remote healthcare delivery allowed patients, especially those suffering from chronic illnesses and other non-COVID diseases, to continue receiving treatment while adhering to physical distancing.
Remote patient monitoring helps observe the condition of mild and medium cases and allows physicians to apply first-aid treatment in case of sudden patient deterioration.
Identifying and Monitoring COVID-19 Patients with Telemedicine Tools
Healthcare providers and institutions used telemedicine to triage patients whether they had COVID-19 symptoms or another medical need. Remote communication between physicians and patients was vital to reduce the spread of the virus during the public health crisis. Healthcare providers increased their used of telemedicine tools throughout the pandemic.
Telemedicine tools helped providers observe their patients in real-time, allowing them to support and oversee the recovery remotely while patients remained in isolation or quarantine.
Technological advancements built present-day telemedicine.
Telemedicine has come a long way since the early 20th century, when doctors would listen to stethoscope sounds over the phone. With the current state of technology, a licensed medical professional can perform medical examinations through telemedicine video visits and diagnose and treat patients remotely.
The distance between doctors and patients is no longer a barrier. Patients schedule online appointments with a single click of a mouse or a tap on their phone screen with a telemedicine software solution. They don’t have to drive to the nearest healthcare provider’s office — telemedicine makes it possible to receive medical care from home or any other private location.
Modern information technology dramatically changed how we live our day-to-day lives. We rely on the Internet and mobile apps for many things, including access to healthcare.
The impact and benefits of telemedicine are undeniable. With an apparent lack of doctors and specialists in the United States, telemedicine and telehealth will continue to prosper in the coming years. Remote healthcare services improve access to medical care for patients in rural areas, facilitate remote patient monitoring, and help doctors and patients save time and money.
Telehealth is a lasting care model as its industry continues to grow. With constant advancements in technology, remote care will soon open more possibilities for patients to access care and healthcare professionals to deliver their medical services.
The future of telehealth and telemedicine is bright. Remote care delivery is here to stay as the paramount of digital medicine.
Incorporating telemedicine gives your medical practice a jumpstart into modern healthcare. If you want to offer telehealth services or need a better way to provide remote care that offers more than virtual visits, but don’t know where to start, here’s the best answer: implement a telemedicine solution like Curogram.
Implementing telemedicine with Curogram gives your practice an advantage in remote care delivery.
Apart from improving access to healthcare, telemedicine or telehealth allow medical professionals to expand their patient base by providing their services to patients in all corners of their state. Telemedicine attracts patients who want convenience when it comes to their healthcare. Seeing more patients means increased profit.
However, there are several things to consider before you embrace telemedicine and start admitting patients online. You need to be wary of the rules and regulations regarding remote healthcare delivery and make sure your practice is compliant with all applicable laws, regulations, and, most importantly, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Rules and Regulations.
You can’t use any app or software to conduct virtual visits. Since telemedicine involves collecting and transmitting electronic protected information (ePHI), the system must ensure the privacy and protection of health data.
Curogram is a fully HIPAA compliant telemedicine solution that allows you to set up your virtual clinic in less than 48 hours. Aside from a secured platform, Curogram has crucial features that enhance patient engagement — online appointment booking, customizable smart reminders, automated survey requests, electronic patient forms, virtual waiting room, EHR integration, and more!
Curogram’s platform ensures an effortless virtual experience for both providers and patients. Plus, Curogram’s telemedicine solution increases productivity and profitability to help your practice attain stability today and in the long run.
To be part of telemedicine and telehealth history and its future, you need to use remote healthcare in your daily practice. Get started today.