Your Telemedicine Future

In the 1909 science fiction classic The Machine Stops, Vashti lives her entire life in a single room; her needs are met by the vast Machine in which she and the rest of humanity live. What happens when she gets sick?

"Kuno," she said, "I cannot come to see you. I am not well."

Immediately an enormous apparatus fell on to her out of the ceiling, a thermometer was automatically laid upon her heart. She lay powerless. Cool pads soothed her forehead. Kuno had telegraphed to her doctor.

So the human passions still blundered up and down in the Machine. Vashti drank the medicine that the doctor projected into her mouth, and the machinery retired into the ceiling.

We're not quite there yet, but thanks to doctors practicing on the Internet, we're getting closer. A company called NuPhysica is just one of the latest online practitioners:

On a recent Monday, Dr. Oscar Boultinghouse listened to a patient’s heartbeat, checking his vital signs before moving on to examine a rash on his arm that had cropped up a couple of days earlier.

But doctor and patient were not in the same room. They weren’t even on the same side of the planet.

From a computer console near The Galleria, Boultinghouse was observing and talking to Don McKinney, an employee of Scorpion Offshore stationed on an oil rig in waters 23 miles off Borneo.

Audio of McKinney’s heartbeat was crystal clear. Live-streaming video of a skin scope zipping magnified images of his arm had none of the graininess typical of Web cameras. When Boultinghouse needed to see him from a different angle, he simply clicked his remote control in Houston to reposition the rig’s onboard camera.

Another program is in use at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, helping critically ill children. It's not connected to the ceiling, but the telemedicine apparatus is wheeled to the patient's bedside:

The program, launched last May, involves six pediatric critical-care attending physicians equipped with videoconferencing units in their homes, letting them connect to a portable robotic telemedicine station, nicknamed "PICU Bot," or "Bot," for short. Bot units can be rolled to the patient's bedside. The physician can remotely control digital cameras and medical scopes attached to the unit to examine the patient. Videoconferencing capabilities let the doctor talk with on-site hospital clinicians, respiratory therapists, and other specialists, as well the patient and the child's parents.

Although EM Forster was very early with his story, his contribution was to popularize and articulate the idea of telemedicine, which had been demonstrated five years earlier by Willem Einthoven; he demonstrated that telecardiology was possible via telephony.

The U.S. and Europe are the dominant players in the worldwide telemedicine market, which is expected to reach $18 billion by 2015, according to a 2009 report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc., a global business strategy company.

From Information Week and Chron.

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