In the News: Telemedicine in the United States

cropped-2009cover-copy

The intersections between technology, medicine, and health are a frequent site of discussion at Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry. In our last issue of 2015, for instance, Yael Hashiloni-Dolev[1] examined the role of new medical technologies that enable posthumous reproduction, while Petersen and Traulsen[2] shed light on the nuanced social uses of psychoactive medications amongst university students. These articles underscore the centrality of technology in everyday human health behaviors, and on the cultural meaning of these new tools in local medical landscapes.

Another technological innovation altering the social world of medicine—one making headlines in recent months—is telemedicine. In the Journal of the American Medical Association[3] (JAMA), telemedicine has been described as “the use of telecommunications technologies to provide medical information and services,” often a shorthand “for remote electronic clinical consultation” via phones and internet applications.

In the December 2015 AARP Bulletin, author Charlotte Huff[4] remarked that over 1 million patients will use telemedicine services this year, and remote access to physicians by phone, video chat, and email is more and more commonly covered by American employers’ health insurance packages. A Reuters article[5] adds that in Texas, a telemedicine company is working to block a state law that would require physicians to see a patient in-person before consulting with them via phone, email, or other means. And in the New York Times[6], a physician observed that telemedicine may prove a useful tool for children and adolescents: many of whom have grown up in a digital culture of “oversharing” and would not balk at texting their physicians images of strange rashes or lesions on their bodies. As this new tool of health care delivery is negotiated in different societal arenas, so too are its implications increasingly worthy of anthropological attention.

Telemedicine is altering the social fabric of medicine in a number of significant ways. Here, we will outline two potential outcomes of telemedicine on medical exchanges facilitated by technology. First, telemedicine extends the professional reach of biomedical clinicians. Areas where biomedical care is inaccessible, or where only indigenous medical systems exist, may now fall under the electronic eye of a faraway practitioner. This has extraordinary consequences for the ubiquity of biomedicine and the consolidation of biomedical power. Second, and rather conversely, telemedicine empowers the patient in the clinical encounter. Because the physician or clinician is not physically present to examine the patient’s body, the patient themself is the one who touches a swollen throat, or flexes a stiff joint, and relays their response through phone or web camera. In sum, the patient gains greater control over bodily (and verbal) narratives that, unlike an in-person exam, the clinician does not have total access to.

The rise of telemedicine speaks to medical anthropologists, certainly, but it also presents a fascinating case more broadly for science and technology theorists and scholars in health communication. As the topic of telemedicine continues to capture the interest of medicine and the media, so too will it fall under the consideration of researchers piecing together the networks that bring patients and their caregivers together in novel ways.

[1] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9447-6

[2] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9457-4

[3] http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=386892

[4] http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2015/telemedicine-health-symptoms-diagnosis.html#slide1

[5] http://www.reuters.com/article/health-case-to-watch-teladoc-idUSL1N14H0CT20151228

[6] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/18/using-phones-to-connect-children-to-health-care/?ref=health

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s