ONE day last summer, Charlie Martin felt a sharp pain in his lower back. But he couldn’t jump into his car and rush to the doctor’s office or the emergency room: Mr. Martin, a crane operator, was working on an oil rig in the South China Sea off Malaysia.
He could, though, get in touch with a doctor thousands of miles away, via two-way video. Using an electronic stethoscope that a paramedic on the rig held in place, Dr. Oscar W. Boultinghouse, an emergency medicine physician in Houston, listened to Mr. Martin’s heart.
“The extreme pain strongly suggested a kidney stone,” Dr. Boultinghouse said later. A urinalysis on the rig confirmed the diagnosis, and Mr. Martin flew to his home in Mississippi for treatment.
Mr. Martin, 32, is now back at work on the same rig, the Courageous, leased by Shell Oil. He says he is grateful he could discuss his pain by video with the doctor. “It’s a lot better than trying to describe it on a phone,” Mr. Martin says.
Spurred by health care trends and technological advances, telemedicine is growing into a mainstream industry. A fifth of Americans live in places where primary care physicians are scarce, according to government statistics. That need is converging with advances that include lower costs for video-conferencing equipment, more high-speed communications links by satellite, and greater ability to work securely and dependably over the Internet.
“The technology has improved to the point where the experience of both the doctor and patient are close to the same as in-person visits, and in some cases better,” says Dr. Kaveh Safavi, head of global health care for Cisco Systems, which is supporting trials of its own high-definition video version of telemedicine in California, Colorado and New Mexico.
The interactive telemedicine business has been growing by almost 10 percent annually, to more than $500 million in revenue in North America this year, according to Datamonitor, the market research firm. It is part of the $3.9 billion telemedicine category that includes monitoring devices in homes and hundreds of health care applications for smartphones.
“Telemedicine also makes total sense in prisons,” says Christopher Kosseff, a senior vice president and head of correctional health care at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “It’s a wonderful way of providing ready access to specialty health care while maintaining public safety.”