What is telemedicine?


Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have great potential to address some of the challenges faced by both developed and developing countries in providing accessible, cost-effective, high-quality health care services. Telemedicine uses ICTs to overcome geographical barriers, and increase access to health care services. This is particularly beneficial for rural and underserved communities in developing countries – groups that traditionally suffer from lack of access to health care. In light of this potential, the World Health Organization (WHO) established the Global Observatory for eHealth (GOe) to review the benefits that ICTs can bring to health care and patients’ wellbeing. The Observatory is charged with determining the status of eHealth solutions, including telemedicine, at the national, regional, and global level, and providing WHO’s Member States with reliable information and guidance on best practices, policies, and standards in eHealth. In 2005, following the formation of WHO’s eHealth strategy, the Observatory conducted a global eHealth survey to obtain general information about the state of eHealth among Member States. Based on the data from that survey, the GOe carried out a second global survey in 2009; it was designed to explore eight thematic areas in detail, the results of each being reported and analyzed in individual publications – the Global Observatory for eHealth series.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine, a term coined in the 1970s, which literally means “healing at a distance” (1), signifies the use of ICT to improve patient outcomes by increasing access to care and medical information.Recognizing that there is no one definitive definition of telemedicine – a 2007 study found104 peer-reviewed definitions of the word (2) – the World Health Organization has adopted the following broad description: 
“The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionalsusing information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid informationfor diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and forthe continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health ofindividuals and their communities
The many definitions highlight that telemedicine is an open and constantly evolving science,as it incorporates new advancements in technology and responds and adapts to the changinghealth needs and contexts of societies. Some distinguish telemedicine from telehealth with the former restricted to service delivery byphysicians only, and the latter signifying services provided by health professionals in general,including nurses, pharmacists, and others. However, for the purpose of this report, telemedicineand telehealth are synonymous and used interchangeably. 
Four elements are germane to telemedicine: 
1. Its purpose to provide clinical support. 
2. It is intended to overcome geographical barriers, connecting users who are not in thesame physical location.
3. It involves the use of various types of ICT. 
4 . Its goal is to improve health outcomes.

Potential barriers to telemedicine diffusion

One such challenge is a complex of human and cultural factors. Some patients and health care workers resist adopting service models that differ from traditional approaches or indigenous practices, while others lack ICT literacy to use telemedicine approaches effectively. Most challenging of all are linguistic and cultural differences between patients (particularly those underserved) and service providers

Opportunities for developing countries

The literature reports that while telemedicine offers great opportunities in general, it could be even more beneficial for underserved and developing countries where access to basic care is of primary concern. One of the biggest opportunities’ telemedicine presents is increased access to health care. Providing populations in these underserved countries with the means to access health care has the potential to help meet previously unmet needs (23) and positively impact health services.


Telemedicine applications have successfully improved the quality and accessibility of medical care by allowing distant providers to evaluate, diagnose, treat, and provide follow-up care to patients in less-economically developed countries. They can provide efficient means for accessing tertiary care advice in underserved areas. By increasing the accessibility of medical care telemedicine can enable patients to seek treatment earlier and adhere better to their prescribed treatments, and improve the quality of life for patients with chronic conditions.