Doctors' house calls, a common practice of a bygone era, are poised to make a modern-day comeback, thanks to much of the same mobile and handheld technology that has transformed the phone call.
Telemedicine, which lets doctors see patients remotely via technology similar to popular apps such as Skype and Face Time, has been around for decades but is undergoing a rapid evolution as handheld devices become more powerful and broadband communications networks become standard.
Modern telemedicine, like the telephone, has been around for a long time — at least since NASA scientists first began monitoring the heartbeats of astronauts in space.
And just as mobile technology and handheld computing has put a powerful computer in many people's pockets, telemedicine is maturing itself, bringing teleconferences out of the board room and into the doctor's office.
On the North Coast, the use of telemedicine is no longer the domain of big players like Sutter Medical Center or Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Smaller district hospitals such as Healdsburg and Palm Drive have been linking their patients with distant specialists for a few years, while the area's community clinics have recently begun to take advantage of more affordable technology.
At Sebastopol Community Health Center, operated by the West County Health Centers, doctors and nurses are using inexpensive desktop Web cameras and iPads not only to connect their patients to specialists but to participate in these medical consultations.
"I get to participate with the specialist and patient," said Dr. Jason Cunningham, medical director of West County Health Centers. "It's more of a collaborative visit, rather than just a single specialist visit. It's a dialogue."
The new portability of telemedicine could allow people and health care professionals to link to each other from wherever they are.
Cunningham said the health centers had previously used a substantial federal grant to purchase an expensive telemonitor unit. But advances in consumer digital technology have dramatically reduced the price of telemedicine.
"The software that's now available allows for very meaningful video connection without an expensive Polycom unit," he said.
Long-distance telemedicine can be traced back to the Civil War, when casualty figures and medicine supply orders were reported via telegraph, according to a 1996 article in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association. But the first modern telemedicine systems were developed by NASA scientists who sought to monitor physiological functions such as heart rates, blood pressure and respiration during the first manned space flights.
One of telemedicine's earliest goals of telemedicine has been to connect top-notch medical professionals to patients in remote geographic areas. It's an enduring objective that has driven much of its use in the North Coast.
When Dr. Javeed Siddiqui, an infectious disease specialist, first began providing telemedicine services to Sonoma Valley Hospital in 2007, telemedicine units and broadband services such as T1 lines were extremely expensive.
Siddiqui provides infectious disease consultations to Sonoma Valley Hospital. The hospital also links up to a UC Davis specialist for pediatric emergency care and an acute stroke specialist at Sutter Health's California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
Siddiqui, who later co-founded TeleMed2U, said telemedicine became less cost prohibitive once it freed itself from expensive telemonitors and other "legacy units." Also, he said, the adoption of telemedicine platforms that can run on any computer operating system made it possible to use devices such as laptops, tablets and even cellphones for medical consultations.