Telemedicine History

The field of telemedicine has evolved drastically since the discovery of first telecommunication technologies, with many of the healthcare providers starting to include them only during the last fifty years to contact patients located in remote locations. However, those humble beginnings have lead to the widespread adoption of various digital communication services have enabled the field of telemedicine to become a complex integrated service that is used in hospitals, medical centers, private physicians offices, patients homes, other healthcare facilities and in-the-field medical care providers all around the world.

The first use of telemedicine was enabled with the creation of first forms of telecommunication technologies that could send and receive information over large distances using electromagnetic signals as a data carriers. These early forms of telecommunications technologies were telegraph, radio, and telephone, who all became viable for use in telemedicine as early as in late 19th century. The radio technology was born with the efforts of Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. The first ratio transmission in the world was performed just a few years later in 1887 by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz.

The first signs of the widespread use of these technologies happened in the early 20th century, which is also the time when medical professionals started devising plans how to take advantages of this technology to provide medical services over great distances. In 1922, magazine “ Science and Invention” showcased an advanced and a bit odd telemedicine concept design called “teledactyl” that was invented by the Dr. Hugo Gernsback. This health and medicine tool had the form of a box that had tiny robot fingers who could examine patients and beam health data via radio transmissions all the way to the healthcare provider, providing a way for a doctor to remotely be in contact and perform examination of a patient in real time (even in a video form!). Of course, this innovative concept design was never realized in a physical form, but it provided a glimpse into the future and a basis on which those old telemedicine services could evolve and reach our modern state. Even though robotic hands are (for now) not in use today, video consultations between patients and doctors surely are.


During the 1950s, telemedicine finally became a thing of reality with the adoption of the early communication systems in several hospitals and university-based medical centers in the United States. Radiologic images were transmitted via telephone between two medical staff at two different health centers in the Pensylvania that located 24 miles apart one from another. During the 1950s, Canadian health service in and around the city of Montreal became enhanced with the technology of Teleradiology system that enabled easy sharing of medical images. The field of telemedicine was enhanced once again in 1959 when the Doctors at the University of Nebraska managed to transmit neurological examination to the nearby campus where medical students watched a real-time television feed of remote examination. This same university greatly enhanced their telemedicine link by enabling linking and providing health service with the Norfolk State Hospital that was located 112 miles away from the campus.


Early years of the telemedicine in the United States was focused on providing medical care to the patients who lived in remote locations far away from medical centers and healthcare professionals, but over time medical professionals and U.S. government saw that this technology had a much larger potential. It could not only reach remote areas but also provide meaningful healthcare services to everyone. This included reaching much more patients in urban centers than the medical centers could physically serve, provide more coverage during healthcare shortages, better respond to medical emergencies, enable faster sharing of information between medical centers and employees, direct access of patient data in electronic form by medical professionals and many others. Telemedicine received a big push in the 1960s with the investments made by United States government organizations such as Public Health Department, Department of Defense, NASA and the Health and Human Sciences Department. Rapid research and innovations developed during those years quickly enabled the field of telemedicine to reach a whole new level. For example, during the 1960s, university medical center in Miami worked together with the fire rescue departments to establish sending of electro-cardiac rhythm signals from the rescue sites back to the medical facility for analysis. Another influential telemedicine advancement was born from the cooperation of NASA and the Indian Health Services. This project under the name of Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care (STARPAHC) enabled arrival of telemedicine services linking remote locations of Papago Reservation in Arizona and astronauts that were orbiting the Earth in space. This and many others advanced research projects performed at universities, medical centers, and research companies over the next several decades enabled great advances in medical engineering, communication technologies, remote health procedures and enabled the formation of modern telemedicine.


Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Pew Research Center, the ATA, CMS, NASA