Today, remotely operated robot doctors are zipping around intensive care units while smartphone apps beam vital signs from ambulance to hospital. Telemedicine is the wave of the future, but you might be surprised to learn that it has been for nearly a century.


The biggest hurdle for diagnosing a patient from a distance has always been delivering useful information to people with the expertise to analyze the data. Older tech like the telephone might let you talk to a doctor in a far-off city so that you can describe your symptoms, but what if she wants to monitor your heart-rate or take an X-ray?

In 1924 the writers of Science and Invention magazine thought they'd found an answer.

The headline proclaimed, "Specialist Brought to Every Town," and promised that experts in every field of medicine would be able to diagnose disease from a control room far removed from their patients.

With the aid of electrical indicating devices, it is easily possible to transmit the findings of any disease over wires from one place to another with almost absolute accuracy. The ideas necessary are shown in the illustration herewith. A cardiograph is attached to the patient's two wrists and variations in the current can be made to register in the distant specialist's office. Respiration pressure is transmitted through a carbon rheostat, the same as is the case with the blood pressure. The heart tone is transmitted by a radio microphone, temperature through a thermocouple. An X-ray of the infected member is transmitted by television.


Just how futuristic were their predictions about treating patients in the future? Television wasn't even a practical reality in 1924. John Logie Baird made the first public demonstration of television the following year in 1925.


We've made stunning advancements in the way that specialists can reach people through telemedicine. Neurologists in New York are now treating Parkinson's patients from 150 miles away, SUVs are being outfitted with wireless tech to bring much needed medical care to rural parts of India, and laws are changing in places like Montana to ensure that health insurers reimburse for things like videoconference doctor's consultations.

But despite all the robo-doctors and heart apps, telemedicine is in many ways still in its infancy. With the increased stresses of an aging Boomer population and a dearth of medical professionals in rural areas, the future of remote diagnosis can't come soon enough.


Images: October 1924 issue of Science and Invention

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