Telemedicine in Plastic Surgery: E-Consult the Attending Surgeon

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Telemedicine has evolved into a valuable but underused resource for the delivery of health care to patients at a distance, particularly where patient transport is impractical, expensive, complicated, and/or urgent. Today, over 250,000 telemedicine consults are generated annually, involving various specialties in both military and civilian health delivery systems. The ability to evaluate and triage plastic surgery patients through the use of telemedicine has not been widely explored. We have designed, developed, and tested a “store-and-forward” solution at UMass Memorial Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital whereby the plastic surgery residents who responded to a consult request transmitted digital photographs by means of the Internet to the attending physician on call. The customary telephone call between resident and attending physician benefited from the additional photographic data, and patient management resulted in a clear, concise, and unambiguous treatment plan. The initial management suggested by the resident was modified on some occasions, particularly with complex problems. The use of digital images was especially helpful for evaluation of radiographs and complex wounds of the hand and face. The solution proved to be very valuable for both attending physicians and residents in plastic surgery. The photographs provide rich detail and resolution comparable to high-quality prints. The mechanics of obtaining images and the process of sending them electronically was readily mastered. Images reached their destination in only a few minutes over standard telephone lines. No problems were encountered while sending or viewing images on Macintosh or Windows platforms. Determining course of action with a complete clinical history now includes a level of visual detail previously not available. As this application expands into wider use, data integrity and safety will have to be more formally secured and monitored. Our model of telemedicine has broad-reaching ramifications for the improvement of health-care delivery locally, nationally, and internationally. (Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 110: 452, 2002.)

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