Telemedicine arose from the need to provide critical and timely advice directly to health care providers and patients in remote or resource-scarce settings. Whether by radio, telephone, or other means of telecommunication technology, the US military has long utilized telemedicine. What started as a way to expedite the delivery of emergency consultations and medical expertise to remote populations in need has since evolved into a billion-dollar innovation industry that is poised to improve health care efficiency and access to specialist care as well as to lower health care costs for all patients.
Teledermatology in the Military
A primary mission of military medicine is to keep service members anywhere in the world in good health on the job during training, combat, and humanitarian operations.1 Telemedicine greatly supports this mission by bringing the expertise of medical specialists to service members in the field without the cost or risks of travel for physicians. Telemedicine also is effective in promoting timely triage of patients and administration of the most appropriate levels of care. With the advent and globalization of high-speed wireless networks, advancements in telemedicine continue to develop and are becoming increasingly useful in military medicine.
As a specialty, dermatology is heavily reliant on visual information and therefore is particularly amenable to telemedicine applications. The rising popularity of such services has led to the development of the term teledermatology. While early teledermatology services were provided using radio, telephone, fax, and videoconferencing,2 three distinct visual methods typically are used today, including (1) store-and-forward (S&F), (2) live-interactive, and (3) a hybrid of the two.3 Military dermatology predominantly utilizes an S&F system, as still photographs of lesions generally are preferred over video for more focused visualization.
In 2004, the US Army Medical Department established a centralized telemedicine program using Army Knowledge Online,1 an S&F system that allows providers in remote locations to store and forward information about a patient’s clinical history along with digital photographs of the patient’s condition to a military dermatologist to review and make a diagnosis or suggest a treatment from a different location at a later time. Using this platform to provide asynchronous teledermatology services avoids the logistics required to schedule appointments and promotes convenience and more efficient use of physicians’ time and resources.
Given the ease of use of S&F systems among military practitioners, dermatology became one of the most heavily utilized teleconsultation specialties within the Army Knowledge Online system, accounting for 40% of the 10,817 consultations initiated from April 2004 to December 2012.5 It also is important to note that skin conditions historically account for 15% to 75% of outpatient visits during wartime; therefore, there is a need for dermatologic consultations, as primary care providers typically are responsible for providing dermatologic care to these patients.6 Because of the high demand for and low volume of US military dermatologists, the use of teledermatology (ie, Amy Knowledge Online) in the US military became a helpful educational tool and specialist extender for many primary care providers in the military.
Teledermatology in the military has evolved to not only provide timely and efficient care but also to reduce health care costs. In a retrospective evaluation of the US Department of Defense’s teledermatology consultation program from April 2004 to December 2012, as many as 98% of teledermatology consultations were answered within 24 hours of submission, 46 medical evacuations were avoided, and 41 medical evacuations were facilitated.4 In a study of teledermatology services used by deployed clinicians in Iraq from January 2005 to January 2009, it was estimated that teledermatology services would help save the military approximately $30.4 million among 2157 dermatology patients.7
Advances in Teledermatology
While the military continues to use S&F teleconsultations—a model in which a deployed referring clinician sends information to a military dermatologist for diagnosis and/or management recommendations—a number of teledermatology programs have been developed for civilians that provide additional advantages over standard face-to-face dermatology care. The advantages of S&F teledermatology applications are many, including faster communication with dermatology providers, diagnostic concordance comparable to face-to-face appointments, cost-effective care for patients, the ability to educate providers remotely,8 and similar outcomes to in-person care.9 However, as to be expected, in-person care remains the gold standard, especially when diagnostic accuracy depends on biopsy findings. A recent systematic review of teledermatology applications in the diagnosis and management of skin cancer showed that the diagnostic accuracy of in-person dermatology consultations remained higher than the accuracy provided by teledermatology consultations; however, as a result of additional technological advances in the quality of digital photography, some investigators have reported high accuracy when macroscopic and dermoscopic images were used in tandem.10
The development of the smartphone along with advances in digital photography and consumer-friendly mobile applications has allowed for the emergence of direct-to-consumer (DTC) teledermatology applications. Regardless of the user’s ability, the quality of photographs taken with smartphones has improved, as standard features such as high-resolution cameras with image stabilization, automatic focus, and lighting have become commonplace. The popularity of smartphone technology also has increased, with nearly 75% of all adults and more than 90% of adults younger than 35 years of age owning a smartphone according to a 2016 survey.11
In 2015, there were at least 29 DTC teledermatology applications available on various mobile platforms,12 accounting for an estimated 1.25 million teleconsultations with providers.13 Teledermatology platforms such as DermatologistOnCall and Spruce Health have made accessing dermatologic care convenient, timely, and affordable for patients via patient-friendly mobile applications. Direct-to-consumer telemedicine allows patients to communicate directly with a specialist without the need for a referral from a primary care provider–gatekeeper.14
Regular access to dermatologic care is especially important for patients who have chronic skin conditions. Several unique practice models have emerged as innovative solutions to providing more convenient and timely care. For example, Curology (https://curology.com) is an online teledermatology practice specializing in acne treatment. The cost to the patient includes unlimited dermatology consultations via a web application and custom-made prescription topical medication sent by mail. Clarify Medical (www.clarifymed.com) makes phototherapy easy for patients and health care providers. Although narrowband UVB treatment traditionally is administered in a dermatologist’s office 3 times weekly for several months until a skin condition has cleared, this smartphone application facilitates convenient, at-home phototherapy. An app-enabled light source allows patients to treat themselves in their own homes within the parameters of a physician’s prescription.
Although DTC teledermatology practices are convenient for many patients and providers, some have been criticized for providing poor quality of care12 or facilitating fragmented care by not integrating with established electronic health record (EHR) systems.15 As a result, recommended practice guidelines for DTC teledermatology have been developed by the American Academy of Dermatology and some state medical boards.16 Moreover, several EHR systems, such as Epic (www.epic.com) and Modernizing Medicine’s EMA (www.modmed.com), have developed fully integrated S&F teledermatology platforms to be incorporated with established brick-and-mortar care.17