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100 years of telemedicine
Although hard to believe, this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of telemedicine. The term telemedicine was coined in the 1970s by the American Thomas Bird and, literally translated, means “healing at a distance” (from Latin “medicus” and Greek “tele”). However, the origins of this evolving technology date back to the early 20th century, when Willem Einthoven, a Dutch physiologist, developed the first electrocardiograph in his laboratory in Leiden. With the use of a string galvanometer and telephone wires, he recorded the electrical cardiac signals of patients in a hospital 1½ km away. He stated: “Where there is a link, actual and figurative, between laboratory and hospital, and collaboration between physiologist and clinician, each remaining master in his territory, there one may fruitfully utilize these new electrical methods of research”. Einthoven’s electrocardiograph was very large but over the years was transformed into a mobile or even portable monitoring device. Nevertheless, he can be regarded as the first clinician scientist to develop and systematically apply a technique that is very similar to telemedicine in the modern sense. The results of his experiments were published in 1906.1 During the 1920s, Norwegian doctors provided advice for sick ship crew members at sea via radio link. In 1967, Bird and colleagues established an audiovisual microwave circuit between the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA, and the nearby Logan Airport. They conducted and evaluated >1000 medical consultations for airport employees and travellers who were ill.2 Since then, the number of scientific studies relating to telehealth has steadily increased, and many countries have launched their own electronic health (e-health) programmes, which combine medical informatics, public health and business. Telemedicine constitutes a small part of e-health and is particularly suitable for large geographical areas with a sparse, underserved population. Examples are …
Competing interests: None declared.
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