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Telehealth, or telemedicine, is a method of medical assessment that connects patients and providers for digital appointments. While this practice didn’t truly surge in the United States until the 2020 pandemic, telehealth has been around for over 50 years.

THE FIRST TELEPHONE CALL

In March 1876, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell sent the first electronic voice transmission. In his excitement, Bell spilled acid on himself, which means even the first call may have been for medical attention.  

Sources vary on whether the acid was spilled before or after the call, so it’s unclear whether the first phone call was truly a request for medical help. Regardless, early adopters began considering the medical uses of the new technology almost immediately.

THE FIRST HINTS OF TELEHEALTH

In an 1879 article published in The Lancet, a scientific journal that’s been active since 1823, the author predicted the growing role of telemedicine in today’s healthcare. This article outlined the expected benefits of instantly sharing medical information over long distances.

It wasn’t long after this article that the practice began to expand with physicians providing care remotely. In the time before the internet, however, collaborative care was more difficult to accomplish. 

There were no electronic platforms at the time to help manage patient referralsexchange records, or coordinate care. Medical professionals and scientists worked over the next decades to bring telemedicine into the mainstream.

Among the first was Willen Einthoven, the inventor of the electrocardiograph. In 1906, he began providing medical consultations over the phone. Then, in 1924, a Radio News magazine cover featured a doctor providing an electronic office visit over a screen.

These consultations became more commonplace as doctors across the country started providing telephone-based remote care. Scientists and physicians worked over the next century to develop and improve better telehealth methods. 

Mental health practitioners like psychiatrists were among the earliest to incorporate telemedicine into their care options.

TELEHEALTH FOR MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Mental healthcare providers were among the first to use telehealth services. Beginning in 1959, the University of Nebraska was one of the first to use video conferencing to connect clinicians with students across campus to share medical information for education and treatment. 

Later that year, the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute used this technology to connect with Nebraska’s Norfolk State Hospital. Through this connection, physicians provided education, research, and consultations.

Over the last 73 years, telemedicine for mental health services has grown substantially. Because the physical examination isn’t necessary for most mental health treatments, there are few drawbacks for patients. 

REMOTE MONITORING DURING SPACE TRAVEL

It’s not uncommon for people in rural areas to be limited in healthcare options, but try finding doctors in space. That would be quite the commute! 

In the early days of space exploration, NASA was still unsure of what exactly astronauts may experience in space. Major concerns include radiation, isolation, distance, low gravity, and hostile environments.

Mainly concerned with the impact of low gravity on the respiratory and circulatory systems, the US and Soviet scientists raced to study space. Both countries sent animals to space for experiments, during which the animals were monitored remotely.

The first experiment occurred in November 1957, when Soviet scientists trained and launched a dog named Laika. 

With sensors set to transmit her vital systems, the scientists determined that she passed away within 7 hours of launch due to overheating and panic. A number of trial-and-error experiments persisted over the next couple of years, until the first human launch.

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person launched into space. While the animals could only be monitored via sensors, the astronauts could explain in detail how they feel. This makes astronauts some of the first people whose health was monitored remotely. 

MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL TELEMEDICINE PROJECT

Beginning in 1967, Massachusetts General Hospital worked with Logan International Airport to set up a connection for telehealth. Once set up, they used the two-way audio and visual connection to treat patients at the airport.

With this technology, Robert Scully, MD was able to correctly identify black and white microscopy images with perfect accuracy. The success of this experiment helped inspire the STARPAHC project between NASA and the Tohono O’odham.

NASA STARPAHC TELEHEALTH SATELLITES

Beginning in 1973, NASA began working on the Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care, or STARPAHC. The main goal of this program was to connect the paraprofessionals treating patients in the isolated area with IHS physicians.

Working with IHS and the Tohono Oʼodham in southern Arizona, NASA developed satellites from 1973-1977. The program continued into the mid-80s. Since then, NASA has leveraged telehealth technology across the globe. 

Want a more expansive summary of NASA’s involvement in the development of telehealth technology?

MEDICAL RECORDS AND TELEHEALTH

Because there is no way to physically examine patients during telehealth appointments, accurate and current medical records are especially important for physicians to review. ChartRequest is here to help healthcare professionals get the records they need faster.

Our care coordination platform makes requesting medical and imaging records easy. Your team can check for real-time status updates anytime to track fulfillment progress, and any additional information or questions can be quickly transmitted via the provider chat function built-in to each request.  

See how quick and efficient HIPAA-compliant PHI exchange can be, and check out our partnership options today!

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