Were he graduating medical school today, Dr. Joel Fleischman might not have been needed in rural Alaska. Fleischman, the main character for TV’s Northern Exposure, was stuck in a small Alaskan village in order to pay off some debts and provide the town with medical care. But now, thanks to rapid advances in telemedicine, Alaskans don’t need quite so many doctors throughout the state. Though 65 percent of the state’s doctors are located in Anchorage, a woman in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough can give birth aided just by a nurse guided, over video, by a doctor, some 200 miles away.
Telemedicine has made rapid advances in the past few years, expanding access to healthcare for all sorts of people. It’s not just people in rural areas either: Veterans in Virginia can now talk to therapists through their computers, avoiding the stigma of a doctor’s office, and inmates in Texas can now see specialists through a program that’s brought telemedicine into prisons.
The cost savings and improved health outcomes from telemedicine are very real. Telemedicine reduced life expectancy gaps between American Indians and whites from eight years to five years in one study. Another found that telemedicine saved Medicaid and Medicare 19 percent on costs when it helped offer hospital-level care in patients’ homes. And in Alaska, after telemedicine was first introduced in 2003, the state's Institute of Social and Economic research estimated that the practice saved doctors from taking more than 3,000 trips, worth $3 million, every year.