The Origin Story of Telehealth


Innovations revolutionize human interactions and add to the developments that make life better. In the health sector, they lead to better care delivery to the extent of saving lives; since WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic in March 2020, news outlets and health information sites have advocated for telehealth services.

According to WHO, telehealth is the “delivery of health care services, where patients and providers are separated by distance. Telehealth uses ICT to exchange information for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries, research and evaluation, and the continuing education of health professionals. Telehealth can contribute to achieving universal health coverage by improving access for patients to quality, cost-effective, health services wherever they may be. It is particularly valuable for those in remote areas, vulnerable groups, and aging populations. “

Beginnings of Telehealth

While the pandemic’s onset has popularized the adoption of telehealth services, it is not a new practice.  The concept of telehealth first became a topic of interest for the health industry when an 1879 Lancet article suggested using telephones to avoid unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office. Forty-seven years later, in 1925, one Science and Invention magazine cover showed a doctor making a diagnosis using the radio. People also began to envision that a doctor could examine a patient over distance through a video.

Landmarks in telehealth

  •         To speed up the data transfer process, doctors started sending radiographic images to specialists over the telephone. The approach was first used in 1948.
  •         In 1959, the University of Nebraska sent and received data over long distances by conducting neurological examinations via telephone.
  •         In the 60s, Nebraska Psychiatry Institute started using closed-circuit television to interact with their patients remotely. The psychiatrists would broadcast live despite being in different rooms with their patients.
  •         The U.S. space program wanted to know if space was safe for man. To get answers to their questions regarding man’s survival in space, they sent animals to space. They would monitor the animals’ conditions using remote sensors that would inform them about the animals’ conditions as they left the earth’s atmosphere. This experiment paved the way for modern-day remote patient monitoring technology.
  •         The birth of the internet in the 1990s was a monumental milestone for telehealth. Essentially, the internet is the foundation of the modern healthcare delivery system. The internet allows global interconnectedness through which health professionals and other stakeholders can interact with their patients by sending and receiving health information over distances with a few button clicks.
  •         In 1993, the American Telemedicine Association, a non-profit organization, was founded. Stakeholders in the health sector could perceive the potential of the communication tools brought forth by the internet. The organization aims to promote and enhance access to patient care by expanding telehealth technology companies. It also creates awareness of telehealth services by educating patients and healthcare providers on the value of incorporating telehealth services in the health system.
  •         The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (AARA) introduced a high cash flow into the United States healthcare system through the HITECH (Health Information for Economic and Clinical Health) bill, which allocated $25 billion to information technology in the health industry. Through the bill, health systems could interact with other systems online, leading to a growth sprout in healthcare digitization.
  •         In 2010, upon passing the ARRA act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made rulings regarding the components of meaningful use of electronic health records. Patient privacy concerns were at the forefront of those rulings.
  •         In 2016, the HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration) received $16 million to increase access to telehealth services in rural areas.

What’s More?

Clinics on ships would receive instructions from other specialists over long distances in the 1920s. Today a person can access advice from their primary caregivers or other specialists over the phone using an app, phone call, or video call from anywhere in the world. Sometimes the consultations can be done within the hospital and in other cases across continents.

Telehealth service can be divided into different categories, each with its history. However, the landmarks have been integral in forging a path for further development of telehealth. Advances in the healthcare payment system and links between patients and providers continue to improve. The year 2020 has seen remarkable collaborations between firms to improve access, especially during the pandemic period.

Telehealth services are expected to keep growing and evolving as modern technology evolves. Its potential to address the health inequities across the globe makes it a lucrative investment for investors and governments in various countries. Training of the masses and providers will be essential to the adoption and utilization of these services. Stakeholders will need to address the concerns that arise and the developments to ensure telehealth’s success for better health outcomes in the populations.