Telemedicine, with the use of information and communication technologies, allows a healthcare professional to provide long distance care, advice, monitoring, and reminders to a patient. You might think that this is a recent invention, but the truth is that telemedicine has been around for a long time.
Modern telehealth services make it possible for people to receive the care they need, even if they can’t visit the office of a healthcare provider. Let’s take a look at the history of telemedicine to learn more about this important healthcare service.
1. The most ancient history of telemedicine
Humans have found ways to communicate over a distance a long time ago. Fires, smoke signals, horns and drums have been used by neighbouring cities and villages to warn each other of an approaching army, or of a disease outbreak.
In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, human messengers were sharing medical advice from one city to another, and people who were unable to visit a temple to receive medical care could send a representative. Representatives would describe symptoms, and bring back what was recommended for treatment. While we still have a long way to go before modern telehealth services emerged, this is where the history of telemedicine first began.
2. Telemedicine and the invention of the telephone
A few decades after the invention of the electrical telegraph in the early 1800s, it could be used by anyone to transmit messages around the world, almost instantly. The telegraph became a convenient tool for people who needed medical advice.
When the telephone was invented in the late 1800s, it became an even more convenient way of receiving long distance care, since patients could speak with their healthcare provider. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell reportedly used his invention to ask for the help of his assistant after he accidentally spilled some acid on himself.
During the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the principles of wireless communication were established. Radio waves made it possible for people living in remote areas to have access to long distance healthcare services, even if they didn’t have access to a telephone.
3. Predicting the future of telemedicine
In 1924, an article that appeared in an issue of Radio News magazine described how it might be possible, eventually, to use televisions and microphones as well as different indicators for people to communicate directly with their doctors, and get a diagnosis and some medical advice.
In 1925, in an issue of Science and Invention magazine, the inventor Hugo Gernsback wrote an article describing what he called a teledactyl: a device that would allow patients to get treatment from their doctor over a distance.
4. The first video consultations
In 1959, the team of clinicians of the University of Nebraska invented a television setup that could allow two people to see each other and talk to each other to exchange information.
The team used this system so their staff and the medical students of the university could communicate across the campus. With the enhanced convenience and accessibility, this type of technology was soon adopted into the mainstream.
5. The first telemedicine clinics
The history of telemedicine had a significant breakthrough in the year 1967. It was the year when one of the first telemedicine clinics was founded. Medical video stations were established between the Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston’s Logan International Airport. Travellers and employees working at the airport could get a video consultation with the clinicians working at the hospital.
In the following years, a few more telemedicine projects were funded, allowing more and more people to have access to the healthcare services they needed.
6. Taking healthcare into space
One of the most successful telemedicine projects was developed by the government of the United States during the 1970s. A partnership between the NASA and the Indian Health Services made it possible to provide healthcare to native Americans living in Arizona… but also to astronauts in orbit.
When the NASA began sending astronauts into space, telemedicine devices were added to their spacecraft and built inside their spacesuits so their health could be monitored. This project used microwave technology and electrocardiography.
7. Telemedicine and the Internet
With the rise of the internet in the 1990s, telemedicine became even more accessible. Instant text, audio and video communication, high-quality video conferencing, educational images and videos, and recording and playback of consultations make it easier than ever for healthcare professionals to take good care of their patients.
Anyone with a desktop computer, a laptop or a smartphone can get an online consultation with the healthcare provider of their choice, and receive a diagnosis and some advice. People who live far from the hospital no longer have to worry about how they will get there.
8. Looking forward to the future
Telemedicine has come a long way since the idea of communication for health purposes was first developed. We can only imagine that as technologies improve and as new communication systems are discovered, telemedicine will become even more efficient and accessible.
Of course, it’s still possible to visit the office of a professional for a face-to-face meeting, but technology and mobile devices have made it easy for anyone to get a consultation, no matter where they are.