Virtual Medicine Health Checkups Via Computer Should Become More Popular

Article excerpt

It's like something out of the cartoon series The Jetsons.

Instead of going to the doctor's office for weekly check-ups, Mayo Clinic patients will soon be able to sit in front of a computer and get their blood pressure and temperature checked without getting in the car or having to be transported by ambulance.

Called telemedicine, the idea dates to the 1950s, but widespread use of the concept for patients has yet to take hold. That will be changing soon, though, said Robert Bratton, a physician with Mayo Clinic.

He anticipates in the next five to 10 years, doctors will be using telemedicine on a regular basis for patients with chronic illnesses.

"There will be widespread use of this in the practice of medicine," Bratton said.

In a recently published study, Bratton listed three advantages to telemedicine: better management of medical problems, improved access to care and reduced hospital stays and visits to doctors' offices.

A 1990 study said that telemedicine could save the health care system about $200 million a year. Bratton's telemedicine study was conducted in the summer of 1998. Twenty Jacksonville residents with a mean age of 77.3 participated in the eight-week study.

Telemedicine isn't designed to replace doctor visits or to replace diagnoses in the office, he said. It's for follow-up care for people with chronic illnesses.

"There is a lot of benefits for patients," he said. "Those that are elderly or who have chronic diseases can access the doctor easier than going to the physician office."

According to the study by Bratton, the origins of telemedicine are unknown. The concept was used back in the 1950s through a joint project with Lockheed Corp., NASA and the U.S. Public Health Service. The purpose of that project was to look at how telemedicine could be used in the future to treat astronauts in space.

Additional projects sprung up in the 1960s and 70s, but by the early 80s interest had waned. Recently, as better teleconferencing technology and less expensive equipment has become available, interest has begun to grow.

But the costs are still high. …