Latest in health: MIT researcher pushes for advancements in telemedicine

Aug 19, 2018

Though obstacles still impede its application, telemedicine -- using technology to remotely connect physicians to patients -- is growing throughout the nation and the world, and a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believes it's a crucial tool to treating patients in the modern age.

Amar Gupta teaches a popular telemedicine course at MIT, and his work has led to several major technological advancements at MIT and other universities. Gupta said telemedicine has an important practical application that is not being fully utilized due to the nature of health care in the U.S. He shared his thoughts with us on "Take Care."

“What we find are that the forces of status quo -- things which have been done in the past -- tend to play a very major role, and it’s very difficult to get people to use [new technology],” Gupta said. “In the case of medicine, this is even more acute because…people are very cautious about if human lives are involved.”

Gupta saw how important health care reform is after his wife broke both her wrists while they were visiting the Lost Angeles area but did not receive surgery until 10 days later. The initial private hospital wouldn't treat her further (after a series of tests) because she was not a member of their health care system. The staff spent hours trying to arrange for treatment elsewhere, but could not find another local emergency room to accept the referall. The hospital advised Gupta and his wife to fly home to Boston to seek treatment, despite the injuries. They were forced to take that advice. Gupta said the experience made him realize it was a problem plenty of others faced, and telemedicine could go a long way in alleviating some of that struggle.

Trying to implement telemedicine on a national scale, though, is difficult because there are several legal boundaries as far as interstate medical treatment. Currently, it is illegal to write prescriptions without physically examining and meeting with a patient in some states, which is a major barrier to telemedicine. In addition, digital medical records operate under a largely fragmented system.

Gupta has an idea for a 24-hour Knowledge Factory, in which work is passed along when the day is done to equivalent workers across the globe. If this idea were implemented in health care, physicians in America and physicians in Southern Hemisphere countries could staff a telemedicine network that is always available to millions of patients. They've already implemented a similar program at Emory University.

“[Doctors are] able to offer better services,” Gupta said. “They’re able to have less stress. They enjoy the experience, and I think these kind of ways of doing telemedicine across state boundaries and national boundaries will become increasingly prevalent.”

Gupta said the best way to make this system universal is for an organization to take a leadership role throughout the process of making a national change, and he is optimistic that telemedicine will continue to grow in the future.

“Things have changed a lot over the years, and I think that’s a phenomenon which we are going to see much more commonly,” Gupta said.