Have you ever sat for hours in an ER waiting area, commiserating with a crew of antsy patients in various states of despair while the itchy rash that landed you there glowers with crimson fury, thinking there must be another way? Contrary to how spot-on this example seems, the practice of telemedicine does, in fact, provide a better alternative.
An application of telecommunications technology used to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients remotely, telemedicine has steadily increased in popularity as consumer demand for quick and convenient health care grows. This novel technique — utilized by companies such as Teladoc, Spruce Health, and Doctor on Demand — has spread to backcountry medicine, where getting to an emergency room might require a very expensive transport via helicopter.
Northern California alone boasts over half a million acres of primitive wilderness, including mountains, lakes, rivers, and tons of opportunities to hurt yourself while located hours from the nearest paved road. This is where you find Mountain Medics, a team of medical professionals including EMTs, paramedics, nurses, and doctors who use smartphones to treat minor illnesses and injuries in remote locations.
“Most diagnoses are made by listening to the patient’s history and visually examining them,” Mountain Medics told Digital Trends. “It’s a popular misconception that physicians rely heavily on direct patient contact through a physical exam, or on laboratory tests and imaging. While those things can be useful, many patients do not need more involved testing or examination to make a reliable diagnosis.”
With widespread wildfires lighting up dry forests every summer, it’s not surprising that most of the patients Mountain Medics work with are firefighters. In fact, it shared in an interview that the incentive for starting the company in 2014 was brought on by witnessing a steady stream of firefighters flow through the emergency room of the hospital they worked at, while a fire raged over an hour away.
They saw this as horribly inefficient. Emergency transport is very expensive, especially if it arrives by means of a helicopter. On top of that, the time spent getting to and receiving treatment at the hospital comprise critical minutes a firefighter is out of the field and taken away from work. Furthermore, this also affects people who don’t work on fire crews, as those wasted resources add up to hefty dollar amounts, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
“Telemedicine is a more direct and cheaper way to deliver healthcare than the traditional model, where someone pulled away from their job and sent to the emergency department for an often unnecessary bundle of tests and X-rays results in a large amount of wasted time and expenses,” said Mountain Medics. “When you’re in a rural setting and there aren’t many physicians around, telemedicine is the most logical venue for healthcare delivery.”
Mountain Medics use mobile treatment clinics stocked with standard medical equipment including heart monitors, defibrillators, EKG machines, medications, and other supplies. Just because you’re in the middle of the woods doesn’t mean you need to waste a perfectly good tent pole or Crazy Creek chair to make a splint. Some of the most common ailments it treats include dehydration, heat-related injuries, minor trauma, skin infections, and contact dermatitis (i.e. Skin rashes). In addition to saving money, telemedicine allows patients in the field to receive treatment much faster than the traditional method, which reduces the agony of a burn or sprain and even spares a life.
“Delays in care often lead to higher morbidity and mortality in patients who have been injured,” Mountain Medics said. “If we can recognize that a patient is injured in the field and rapidly remove them to definitive medical care, we have fulfilled our mission by giving that patient the best possible chance of a good outcome.”
They also operate as a backcountry ambulance service and claim to be the only company in the U.S. that provides 4×4 ambulance standby services with wilderness qualified personnel. Mountain Medics is based out of Dunsmuir, California, near the base of Mt. Shasta. So far, they’ve worked in California and Oregon but dream of taking their rugged mobile medical service overseas in the future.
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