A Quick Look at The History of Telemedicine

It’s a fairly obvious statement to say that 2016 was the year of telehealth. Even though the push for its inception started in late 2014 and showed signs of becoming a real movement in 2015.

In 2017, the concept will be unrestricted, paid for and covered, and continue expanding to a wider audience. For the arguments of telehealth being used to serve the disenfranchised and the rural poor, telemedicine is set for widespread use.

Despite all of these recent headlines, the practice of telemedicine has a long and rich history. According to CDW Healthcare, from an 1879 article about telephone use to reduce office visits to the late 1950s and early closed-circuit TV psychiatric consultations, telemedicine has long been a part of healthcare’s vernacular.

With that, let’s take a look at the history of the technology. A CDW Healthcare infographic does a great job of breaking down the timeline.

Shortly after the Mar. 10, 1876 call Alexander Graham Bell placed to his assistant muttering the words, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” the concept of healthcare being delivered by telephone was first discussed. Apparently, the idea languished until roughly 60 years later when in 1925, radio and publishing leader, Hugo Gernsback, predicted that physicians would use not the telephone, but radio and TV to communicate with patients.

Even with this wild-for-the-time prediction, it was another 23 years until radiology images were sent via telephone lines, across 24 miles in Pennsylvania. The late 1950s changed things a bit; significantly, really. The University of Nebraska, for example, used an “interactive” telemedicine to send neurological exams. Canadian radiologists also transmitted images by coaxial cable. In 1960, also in Nebraska, closed-circuit television between the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute and Norfolk State Hospital connected for consultations, which was considered a major move at the time. The next year brought a published report from the journal, Anesthesiology, on radio telemetry for patient monitoring. Finally, later in the decade, still in Nebraska, telemedicine began as a form of healthcare delivery by NASA and the Nebraska Psychological Institute.

Throughout much of the next decade, NASA reportedly developed and tested the Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Health Care program where mobile support units in a rural reservation with physicians in Indian Health Service hospitals.

The ‘80s brought telehealth to radiology again when images were sent and received for telehealth consultations, while the following decade brought an entirely new innovation never expected more than 100 years earlier – the internet. This has meant a great deal of possibility for the field, perhaps not as much as one might have expected. In fact, it wasn’t for another nearly 20 years that the ARRA and HITECH Acts were created with the intent of spurring the use of the technology forward and to drive digital connectivity in healthcare and deliver upon the promise of internet-connected healthcare.

This development was followed by Meaningful Use regulation and the Affordable Care Act in 2010 where Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) were created to push for the maturation of telehealth capabilities.

In 2016, $16 million was given by the federal government to improve access to healthcare in rural areas. Some of the money was designated for the use of the technology for veterans and others. While we’re not where many thought we might be, especially more than 120 years ago, most physicians think the effort is a top priority and will lead to improved patient outcomes and access to care.

We’ll likely see an expansion of the technology through the use of internet-connected everything devices and as virtual medical facilities take shape, but there’s been excitement about the concept before now. Telehealth is likely a real concept now, but even with new developments, that doesn’t mean all of this can’t be derailed. 

Scott Rupp's picture

Scott Rupp


Scott E. Rupp is a writer and an award-winning journalist focused on healthcare technology. He has worked as a public relations executive for a major electronic health record/practice management vendor, and he currently manages his own agency, millerrupp. In addition to writing for a variety of publications, Scott also offers his insights on healthcare technology and its leaders on his site, Electronic Health Reporter.

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