Study: Virtual medicine as effective as physical doc visits

Webcam doctor visits called convenient and save time and money

Results of a five-year study on telemedicine showed that patients can be treated virtually by physicians as effectively as if the patients made physical visits to the doctor's office. In another finding, the remote treatment also improved doctor-patient communications.

The study highlighted the efforts of Hospital Clinic of Barcelona to treat 200 HIV-infected patients remotely through its "Hospital VIHrtual" telemedicine program. The program used virtual consultations through videoconferencing and delivery of medications to a patient's home. The telemedicine program does not replace the traditional face-to-face visits between doctor and patient but complements and enhances them, the hospital said. The study results were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLos One.

In the U.S., many states are implementing telemedicine as a way to save costs, improve the quality of time physicians spend with patients and cut down on commuting time.

For example, last year two BlueCross BlueShield insurance organizations in upstate New York began offering their members and employers virtual physician visits, making New York the fourth state to provide these types of services. The service allows patients to talk with physicians in real time through a private online chat network or through a voice-over-IP phone call. It also offers video chat and instant messages.

Other medical facilities throughout the country are offering physician/patient communications through Twitter .

Hospital Clinic of Barcelona's telemedicine program was coordinated by Dr. Felipe Garcia and Dr. Agathe Leon, from the Hospital Clinic Service of Infectious Diseases, directed by Dr. Josep M. Gatell.

"The study shows that the virtual hospital allows comprehensive control over the patient in medical, pharmaceutical, psychological and quality of life aspects. The results are as satisfactory as those obtained in a visit at the hospital," a press release by the hospital stated.

Meanwhile, a separate study, published in January , showed 85% of 87 patients who were surveyed indicated that a virtual hospital improved their access to clinical data and that they felt comfortable with the videoconference system.

Virtual office visits were also found to improve the amount of information patients could receive about their illness, while reducing costs and the time spent traveling back and forth to physicians' offices and waiting for physicians to meet with patients.

The Hospital VIHrtual telemedicine program offered patients teleconference consultations that included medical, nursing, psychological, pharmaceutical and social care. The video consultation sessions were set up through email.

The hospital's telemedicine program also offers two virtual communities, one for healthcare professionals where they can share clinical cases and treatments, and another for patients offering news, discussion forums and blogs with physicians and other patients.

Because so many HIV-infected patients are medically stable, they must maintain a normal social and work life, which may require travel, business meetings and other important scheduled events. Frequent visits to the hospital are a major investment of time and money for the patients. The virtual system allows the patient to go to the medical center only for a physical examination and reduces the number of visits to the doctor from six or eight in the current system to three or four, the hospital stated.

"This program allows patients to continue their treatment without altering their routine. Medication is sent to their home, or other locations specified by the patient," the hospital stated. "Telemedicine is emerging as a service appropriate for this treatment, and Hospital VIHrtual as a safe and effective tool. This system, with variations, could become a model for the control of chronic stable patients suffering other diseases."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

Read more about health care in Computerworld's Health Care Topic Center.

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Lucas Mearian

Computerworld (US)

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