The future of health care is starting to look more and more like an episode of “The Jetsons”: mobile, seen on screens and often available at a moment’s notice. As medical providers across Western North Carolina work to expand access, especially in rural communities where it’s notoriously lacking, telehealth has emerged as a promising new solution for patients in areas that lack local resources. Although rudimentary, hospital-based remote medical care has been around since the late 1950s, when a closed-circuit TV link was established between the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute and Norfolk State Hospital, telehealth has seen a dramatic rise in popularity as the technology has evolved and access to specialty health care has diminished.
An estimated 7 million patients in the United States will use telemedicine services this year, a December 2018 article in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine predicted, and demand will continue to rise. The piece also noted that from 2012-13, the telemedicine market grew by 60%.
“As we become more digital in our daily lives, it makes more sense, from a provider’s perspective, to interact with folks in that realm,” says Shane Lunsford, practice manager at the Asheville-based MAHEC Center for Psychiatry and Mental Wellness. “Often we can reach folks better through technology than we can face to face,” says Lunsford, whose facility — an arm of the Mountain Area Health Education Center — is about to roll out a new telepsychiatry program. “This is a way to make that access to health care happen and treat patients’ conditions before they have to go to the emergency room or call 911.”