The History of Telemedicine

 
by: Yana Passater
 
Let us take a look into the story which led up to our current spot in telemedical history, the shifting point where we, as medical staff, find ourselves today. Over relatively recent years telemedicine has evolved as much as technology has generally. If we consider where the computer was 50 years ago, one might have an idea the scope by which our ability to communicate has grown, shifting medicine out of the dark ages and into the light of experiences shared over long distances. In the fast changes that technology has experience, over these last decades, telemedicine’s complexity has grown with homes, medical establishments, and private offices of physicians all joining the now exponentially expanding network of shared information.
 
Telemedicine grew from telecommunication, that is, the idea of sending information over long distances through electromagnetic signals. Telecommunication in its early forms was comprised of the still familiar radio, the older telegraph, and early (non-satellite) phones. Born in the 19th century, these technologies were only beginning to emerge as useful techniques for communication. Bell patented his invention, the telephone, only at the end of the 19th century, in 1879, and almost ten years later, in 1887, the radio’s first transmission was sent by Hertz.
 
Inventors had crafter their toys, but it was not until the start of the 20th century that average people found a standard of access to phones and radio. Only when that standard was really settled in the general psyche could doctors, patients, and medical staffs begin to truly think of applying these technologies to health practices. In 1925 an interesting article appeared in Science and Invention magazine. Dr. Hugo Gernsback was featuring the conceptual illustration of a machine to examine patients while they were far away from a doctor. This “teledactyl”, as he called it, would, with its thin robot fingers, examine a body and use radio technology in combination with a video feed to complete an appointment between a patient and a doctor. You know as well as any, that this machine never made it past its conceptual stage, but the technology which medical practices are beginning to implement today is not far from Dr. Gernback’s thinking, as patients can now video consult their doctors.
 
In the 1950s, in all of it’s creativity, some hospitals and high level education facilities, that based medical establishments, decided to explore how telemedical concepts could be applied in a useful everyday practice. Two establishments in Pennsylvania search and created a way to share radiologic images through the telephone. They were about 24 miles apart. This technique of information sharing, which came to be known as ‘teleradiology,’ was quickly put to use by a Montreal area doctor. In 1959 a two-way interactive television was implemented to transmit neurological examination between medical students and doctors at different ends of the University of Nebraska’s campus. The capability expanded to such a degree that doctors on the UofN campus were able to provide health service to a location almost 120 miles from campus, at the Norfolk State Hospital.
 
This technology was originally developed to connect patients living in remote areas to doctors working in urban areas. But this is not the focus in which the technology necessarily needed to stay – it became clear that even within urban areas, the ability to respond to emergencies as fast as ‘tele-waves’ travel, and the ability to share patient healthcare records without days of delay time, was not only useful, but something that the U.S. government found worthy of investment. In the 1960 the Public Health Department, the Department of Defense, the Health and Human Sciences Department, and the ever top-of-the-line NASA, helped to create innovation in the field of telemedicine. This is the time when cardiac rhythms began to be sent during emergencies. In Miami, at this time, a voice radio channel transmitted electro-cardiac rhythms signals between a medical center and a fire rescue crew.
 
In addition, around this time, an especially useful project occurred between NASA and Indian Health Services. It was funded by the government and titled STARPAHC (Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advance Health Care. In a dual support system, this program funded both medical care for NASA’s astronauts and people living on the Papago Reservation lands. Projects such as this inspired medical engineers to expand technical capabilities within the medical field. And since then we have only continues to see innovations at medical centers, research facilities, and even within patient’s homes.