Millions of Texans now have the ability to instantly transport themselves hundreds of miles across the state to seek specialist medical treatment.
On May 30th this year Governor Greg Abbott signed off on legislation that approves the use of telemedicine across Texas. That means patients in rural and remote communities can now use their computers, laptops, and smartphones to seek out face-to-face advice from health professionals no matter where they’re located across the state.
It clears the way for Texas and telemedicine to create an entirely new form of health care network that takes a patient from diagnosis through treatment and on to in-home care without them ever having to travel. In a state currently experiencing a doctor shortage, telemedicine could become a life saver.
Telemedicine and Texas
Telemedicine may be needed in Texas more than any other state in the country. Its large scale and wide open spaces mean millions of people live outside major urban centers, and go without access to specialty medical services that rely on heavy use to be sustainable.
A survey by the North Texas Regional Extension Center, which is part of the Texas Medical Association, found the state needs a 12,800 more physicians in order to reach the national average of doctor-citizen ratios.
It also revealed the following facts, which show the state’s desperate need for a far-reaching, easily accessible online supplement for current medical services:
- 185 Texas counties, with a combined population of 3.1 million, have no psychiatrists
- 158 counties, population 1.9 million, have no general surgeon
- 147 counties, population 1.8 million, have no obstetricians or gynecologists
- 80 counties have 5 or fewer doctors
- 35 counties have no doctors at all
Clearly the remote nature of smaller counties is a big factor in the low provision of services. Almost 9% of the Texas population lives in communities of 40,000 or fewer, and those communities are home to less than 3% of the state’s physicians. When you’re already running low on doctors, it is obviously hard to assign them to remote areas where they’ll be out of touch with 90% of the population.
Telemedicine, however, removes distance from the doctor-patient relationship and puts anyone with an internet connection in direct contact with a doctor.
What Telemedicine Could Bring to Texas
Surgery aside (for obvious reasons), telemedicine can provide actual, necessary medical services across all those areas listed in the points above–there are even devices available to take blood samples and conduct blood pressure and heart monitoring over the internet. What’s more, it has been proven that these virtual services can operate to the same standards as an in-person consultation. That’s important, because only an effective service is going to make a difference to the lives of people in remote communities.
There are already many virtual doctor apps capable of putting the average citizen in direct face-to-face contact with a general practitioner for an initial examination and diagnosis or referral. These are overwhelmingly operated by private companies, but the approach could easily be adopted by a state-wide public hospital system or a network of private hospitals and physicians.
Combined with the current trend toward home-delivered medications–which range from the traditional to the drone-supplied–a patient might be diagnosed, treated, and provided with a follow-up evaluation of a minor illness or injury entirely through telemedicine.
More specialized services, such as psychiatry, require more advanced virtual networks, but they’ve been implemented in other states. There’s even a trial underway at a string of Texas universities to test the use of virtual mental health services for college students.
But for less complicated services, capitalizing on the state government’s telemedicine green light and bringing specialized services to the remotest communities just takes coordination and basic video conferencing technology.
Building a Telemedicine Network
The foundation of telemedicine is the “tele” part. Doctors and patients both need access to affordable, quality webcams and video calling software in order to get anything worthwhile out of the concept.
The hardware side is relatively simple as HD webcams are now readily available for as little as $50, and are compatible with most laptops and desktops.
The software side can be just as cheap, but it does require the adoption of either a common platform, like Skype or GoToMeeting, or the use of WebRTC technology that lets anyone access a video connection through their browser.
Once those connections are in place, the Texas government would be able to build a central virtual triage service for remote communities that offers treatment for minor ailments and referrals for more complicated issues. Those specializing in the more complex cases would also be available online, preventing the need for patient travel until actual physical examination or treatment was absolutely necessary.
Within this network, the thousands of Texans that live in those 35 doctorless counties could have direct contact with specialists covering everything from grief counseling to aged care monitoring, from asthma and diabetes treatment to prolonged cancer care.
It could become a lifesaver by giving remote residents a quick and easy way to consult a doctor on symptoms that might go usually unchecked due to the travel involved. Everything may be bigger in Texas, but there’s no distance too great to prevent a telemedicine solution.
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