These numbers will make you feel ill.
More than 136 million people attended an American medical emergency department in a single year, according to the most recent count available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s the same as every man, woman, and child in both France and the UK combined going through the emergency health system in just the span of 12 months.
Of those masses, less than 12% needed to be admitted to hospital. Barely more than 2 million needed to be admitted to critical care.
That’s fewer than 3 out of every 100 people who turned up at the hospital–via ambulance or otherwise–in mortal danger. The burden on emergency health services clearly needs to be lowered, and one unlikely source could make all the difference: video conferencing.
The Current Status of Healthcare by Video Conferencing
Video conferencing technology is already changing the face of healthcare in the US.
The Federal Drug Administration recently approved remote stethoscope software that allows audio from heart and lung examinations to be sent to a doctor or nurse via video conferencing.
Researchers from the University of Virginia have proved in real-world trials that video calling via portable tablet devices mounted in ambulances allows doctors to provide a diagnosis of a stroke patient in transit as efficiently as if they were sitting bedside.
And, the Mercy Hospital system is using video conferencing to monitor critical care patients in 15 hospitals across four states in real-time from a single remote center.
Of course, some of these advances are just in the trial phase, and all are available only once the patient enters the health system. They don’t help in the initial triage diagnosis of potential patients, and they don’t work to counter the growing tide of emergency room visits.
Video Conferencing in Australia
The system operates as a first point of contact in situations that are not an obvious emergency. A registered nurse answers every call, day or night, and after a preliminary chat about symptoms and medical history provides advice on how the patient can treat themselves, and whether or not they should consult a general practitioner. If the situation is critical, the nurse connects the caller directly to an ambulance.
It’s proved popular for assisting new parents troubled by abnormal behavior in their baby; people with sudden onset of milder symptoms such as nausea and chest pains; and sufferers of long-term conditions who have questions about medication and the like that arise after hours.
These are people who would normally hedge on the safe side and head straight for the local hospital, but now have an alternative. This is a good model of how to weed out non-emergency patients, and it could be instituted in the U.S.–and improved–through the use of video conferencing.
All that needs to change on the institutional side is that an affordable video conferencing camera be placed atop the nurse’s computer screen. By adding video to the setup the nurse has access to the best diagnostic tool in their arsenal: their trained eyes.
The Many Faces of Video Conferencing with Nurses
To be effective on the patient’s end of things any emergency video conferencing system must be easy to use. Few people are going to bother firing up their PC and plugging in their webcam at the onset of a migraine headache.
But they will use their smartphone. And modern smartphones are really just portable video conferencing devices. Almost all the leading video conferencing providers have apps that will let you communicate by video from an iOS or Android phone.
Browser-based video conferencing will eventually negate the need for patient and nurse to even be on the same provider to make a connection, as major video chat companies such as Skype make the move to WebRTC-compatible platforms that remove the need for plug-ins or downloads to make their systems fire.
Taking things a step further, people in at-risk groups, such as the elderly, those recovering from major surgery, or justifiably paranoid new parents, can use technology such as Bloom which maintains a constant link to this new emergency assistance.
The system operates with a tablet that can be left on at all times, and displays large pictures of half a dozen key contacts that display like photos and can be called with just a touch of the finger.
With the new video nurse-on-demand system contact sitting dead-center of the screen, it would be as accessible as a medic-alert bracelet, and offer near-instant medical attention–or just peace of mind.
Unclogging the Emergency Medical System
No technology is ever going to replace a doctor’s healing hands when real tragedy strikes. And no one should be disparaged from calling 911 when it’s obvious urgent medical attention is required.
But if video conferencing could reduce emergency department attendances by just 3%, it would take more than 4 million people out of the system, and unclog one million hours of waiting room time from triage windows.
Those numbers should make everyone feel a little better.