The Role of Telemedicine in Amputation Prevention

Dr Bill Releford
May 3, 2022

Diabetes-related foot ulcers, infection, and gangrene are frequent and costly complications of underlying diseases such as PAD, and Critical Limb Ischemia (CLI) – an advanced form of PAD. The treatment for these non healing wounds requires frequent visits to a healthcare center and this poses a great burden on the patient. Telemedicine (TM) offers a more effective care management system for non healing wounds while eliminating the need for constant trips to see a specialist.

The Challenges of Traditional Healthcare in Amputation Prevention

Non healing wounds can be a great challenge to both patients and the healthcare system. The current system of assessing wound progress requires the patient to make in-person visits ever too often. This could cause a delay in identifying patients who are healing well and those whose conditions are becoming worse. The ulcers may also take months to heal and can lead to gangrene, osteomyelitis, and amputation.

Treatment for diabetes-related foot ulcers requires follow-up in both primary and specialist care. Currently, there seems to be a capacity problem in the specialist healthcare system and poor communication between primary care and specialist care.

In hospitals with few vascular and wound care specialists, patients with leg ulcers are mostly treated by primary healthcare nurses. This is problematic since the nurses may not be thorough in ensuring ulcer healing and patient well-being.

Managing PAD to prevent ulcers or restricted blood flow requires constant checkups. However, many patients from disadvantaged communities either don’t know they need care or lack a good medical insurance cover despite advances in treatment and Medicaid expansion. Further, for patients living in the rural areas of the U.S., follow-up can be challenging since a substantial travel time is used to access specialized healthcare.

Telemedicine for Amputation Prevention

Telemedicine is a key part of ICT that is currently being used to achieve integrated healthcare services by making sure patients can access quality care right from the comfort of their homes. Telemedicine solutions may contribute by improving local healthcare and reducing patients’ burden related to traveling to and from treatment venues.

A telemedicine system can be used for the early diagnosis of limb problems and the encouragement of preventive health practices. Both of them promote limb salvage and increase the quality of life.

One aspect of telemedicine that is especially beneficial for patients at risk for amputation is telemonitoring. This involves giving patients equipment to measure things like their blood oxygen levels and blood pressure and having them upload the results onto a system. The specialist will then go through the provided data and get in touch with the patient in case of any concerns.

Cost-Effectiveness and Healthcare Savings

Telemonitoring services significantly reduce healthcare service costs, saving money for everyone involved. Telemedicine eliminates transportation expenses for regular checkups. Traveling to appointments and parking at hospitals can be expensive, especially since PAD patients need constant care.

As doctors can access patients’ medical records online, many health concerns can be diagnosed over the phone, and a prescription issued without the patient leaving their front door. This helps reduce the number of non-urgent ER visits.

Telemedicine enables fractional employment. In smaller facilities, there may not be sufficient volume to keep a podiatrist or vascular specialist fully occupied.

Convenient and Accessible Quality Care

Convenience is key in today’s healthcare world. Telemedicine provides a potential for more effective management of PAD patients owing to more active cooperation between primary and specialist healthcare.

Compared to the current organization of specialist health care, telemedicine can help realize the goal of coordinating and integrating care between the different levels of care and in doing so increases patient satisfaction. Also, the patient has quicker access to specialist health care when required.

Telemedicine allows healthcare providers to identify problems more quickly, rectify misunderstandings of recommended self-care regimens, and provide ongoing education as needed. Constant engagement with the patients also encourages them to maintain appointments and treatment routines.

The Drawbacks of Telemedicine

Despite the promises and benefits that telemedicine offers for amputation prevention, there are numerous challenges at the patient, technical, and legal levels. For example, telemedicine may affect the patient-doctor relationship compared to a face-to-face visit. Having a doctor in the same room as you can make you feel more reassured than having them treat you over the phone.

Very few applications have been implemented in the field of diabetic foot care which can be attributed to cost-effectiveness, feasibility in use, and ineffectiveness. Another significant concern about telemedicine is information privacy. Legal regulations are therefore important but need to balance security without becoming a hurdle to implementation.

Also, the lack of competent health professionals hinders effective wound care and might result in a condition getting worse.  Adding to all these challenges is the fact that diabetic patients with non healing wounds are fragile, have a relatively high age, and increased mortality rates.

Bottom Line

Telemedicine is often seen as an opportunity for effective healthcare delivery. It’s a fast-growing field that can help predict the risk for PAD, non healing ulcers, and other diabetes-related conditions, ultimately saving limbs and lives. Telemedicine is a field that is continuously evolving and as the technology improves the drawbacks are also being tackled.