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Imagine this: you’re hiking alone in a remote area when you take a wrong step, fall, and break a leg or suffer a puncture wound from a sharp stick.
Panic sets in immediately, but then you take a deep breath and remember everything is going to be fine.
As if on cue, your smartwatch beeps, having registered the sudden change in your movement pattern, and a familiar voice asks whether you would like one of your pre-programmed emergency contacts to be notified.
“Yes,” you respond, and when prompted, you name the contact: a local hospital’s telemergency department.
A telephone rings briefly before you are greeted by triage personnel. The person on the other end of the line confirms your location (automatically sent to them via GPS) and inquires as to the nature of your injury.
“I think I’ve broken my leg,” you say. “The bone is exposed. It’s bleeding pretty badly.”
“I understand,” says the triage nurse. “I’ve already dispatched an ambulance, but stay on the line. I’ll connect you to a doctor, who will talk you through what to do until they arrive.”
You’re in pain (somewhat dimmed thanks to the shock), but you take comfort in knowing that help is on the way. Your mind only has a moment to wander before being interrupted by a new voice on the line.
“This is Dr. Smith,” says the voice. “I hear you have a compound fracture in your leg. Do you have your phone with you?” You figure, correctly, that the doctor wants to connect your phone to the call via your emergency alert app so you can provide a photo or video of the injury. Unfortunately, you opted to leave your mobile behind in the car.
“I don’t,” you respond, “but I am wearing a pair of smart glasses.”
“Great, can you link them?”
You’re one step ahead, already manipulating the tiny buttons on the glasses’ frame that correspond to the app currently in use. Your smartwatch emits another beep, signaling linkage with the smart glasses. Now the doctor can see what you see.
“I’m sorry you’re going through this—I know you’re in a lot of pain right now,” the doctor says, “but don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” She then walks you through how to make your belt into a tourniquet to slow the bleeding. Thanks to the live video footage provided by your smart glasses, the doctor is able to help you do it exactly right.
“Looks good,” she says. “Now I’m going to turn you over to another nurse. Hang in there, and I wish you a smooth recovery.” She leaves the call before you have a chance to thank her, and after listening to a brief moment of hold music (which, sadly, doesn’t get any better in the future), you’re reconnected to a nurse.
While monitoring your vitals through the smartwatch and the wound through the live video feed, the nurse confirms your identity and a few highlights from your medical history, like known allergies and previous surgeries. This information is visible on the nurse’s screen, thanks to all your patient data being accessible in cloud storage.
“The ambulance is still about 30 minutes away,” the nurse informs you, “but a trauma drone was dispatched simultaneously, and should be landing near you in the next two or three minutes.”
Sure enough, you hear a buzzing in the distance.
“Inside, you’ll find pain meds, antiseptic ointment, and a medical-grade tourniquet. As long as we don’t get disconnected, I’ll be able to guide you through all the contents and how to use them.”
The drone lands gently next to you, and per the nurse’s instructions, you swallow a few pain pills. Your leg is on fire and time seems to crawl, but eventually you hear boots crunching along the trail, and two paramedics appear above you. They take over the chain of care, and transport you to the hospital.
You’ve just been the recipient of telemedicine—the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology.
In case you think this is a sci-fi scenario, I can assure you it is not.
Many forms of telemedicine are already available today, and will be seen as downright primitive when we look back at the field a decade or two from now. Whether or not it plays out exactly as described in the scenario above, trauma care—and healthcare as a whole—will transform dramatically thanks to innovative new solutions being generated today.
“But emergency medicine is already so advanced,” you might think. Sure, but there’s another side to that coin.
In 2018, accidental injury became the third-leading cause of death for the first time in the United States. Based on current estimates, an American is accidentally injured on average every second, and killed every three minutes by a preventable cause. This could be a drug overdose, an automobile crash, a fall, or another incident. In every one of these scenarios, instant access to quality, professional medical care could mean the difference between life and death.
Non-fatal injuries are nothing to disregard, either. A severe injury that doesn’t get treated quickly can dramatically impact the quality of life of the victim. Patients who require years or even months to recover instead of weeks can experience major loss of income (and sometimes even their jobs, if they’re not protected) that can affect both their own lives and those of their dependents. They can be left with chronic pain or body changes (like a permanent limp or even brain damage) that, again, can severely impact their quality of life.
It’s also worth noting that in economic terms, the quick and effective treatment of injuries will save the healthcare industry billions of dollars. Injuries, the care of them, and the resulting chronic pain and disability are all huge liabilities for the healthcare system as a whole.
Telemedicine will only increase in efficacy as it incorporates other transformative innovations like smart body technology, cloud technology, and artificial intelligence. The treatment of injuries is just one part of an overall tapestry of care that this kind of technological advancement will allow for.
Its inevitable disruption of healthcare will contribute to humanity, increasing our longevity, elevating our quality of life overall, and helping to protect our precious and often vulnerable well-being.