History of telemedicine – how did this phenomenon begin?

Telemedicine is not a modern way of receiving medical help. It has very interesting and rich history.

History of telemedicine – how did this phenomenon begin?
Viktor Simunović, Dr.med.
Dr.med. Viktor Simunović
04 Jun 2024.

The term telemedicine originates from the Greek word "tele" – meaning distant, and the Latin word "medicus" – meaning to heal. Therefore, telemedicine is healing from a distance without the physical presence of a physician. If we define it this way, we can trace its roots back to ancient times, and it is by no means a product of the modern age.

Telemedicine in ancient times

The ancient Greeks or Romans could be considered the pioneers of telemedicine and modern science in general. In such large and developed civilizations, the need for better communication between cities arose. Messengers regularly traveled from one town to another, conveying messages or objects, including medicines or medical advice.

If there was no physician in your city and the one from the neighboring town was too busy, help could be provided to the patient via messengers. This form of telemedicine persisted for a very long time, up until the invention of telecommunication technology.

The beginnings of modern telemedicine

The invention of the telegraph (Francis Rolands, 1816) can be considered the beginning of modern remote healing. Information began to travel instantly and over unlimited distances.

Robert H. Eikelboom recorded the first use of the telegraph for this purpose in the book "The Telegraph and the Beginnings of Telemedicine in Australia." He cites evidence that the telegraph was used in Australia in 1874 to help an injured person.

Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone in 1876

Despite all its advantages, the telegraph was very impractical. It used Morse code, which could only be translated by those who knew it. It was quite large and cumbersome and was mainly located in post offices.

On the other hand, the telephone was smaller, could transmit voice without the need for translation, and could be owned by anyone who could afford it. Bell laid the foundations for such communication in 1876.

In 1879, the Lancet journal described how a physician listened to a child's cough over the phone and assessed whether the child had a respiratory infection.

This technology, including the internet and mobile phones, is still used in telemedicine today.

Further development of telemedicine

In 1959, the first interactive video link was established at the University of Nebraska. It was used to send the results of neurological examinations across the campus.

In the 1960s, NASA began using telemedicine to monitor the health of astronauts on missions.

1975 NASA also launched the STARPAHC (Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care) project. The project aimed to provide better medical care to Native American reservations.

Around the mid-1970s, Thomas Bird first used the term "telemedicine."

In 1967, the first permanent telehealth system was established between Boston Logan Airport and the Massachusetts General Hospital, two kilometers away.

Seven years earlier, a plane crash occurred during takeoff when it struck a flock of birds. Many injured passengers died because emergency services had to make their way through traffic slowly. With this system, Dr. Kenneth Bird could immediately advise on how to help the most severely injured patients.

In 1989, the first successful defibrillation via telephone was performed at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. The patient had a trans telephonic defibrillator at home. The device connected to the phone and automatically called the hospital when activated. It would send an ECG to another device in the hospital so that the doctor could read it and determine the next steps.


At the end of 1988, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia, claiming over 150,000 lives and causing destruction across the country. The United States and the Soviet Union formed working groups that agreed on cooperation and medical assistance via satellite communications.

In March 1989, equipment for Spacebridge was installed. This technology allowed doctors from the United States to assist those in need in Armenia remotely.

Spacebridge was planned to be operational until the end of June. However, on June 4, a train accident occurred in Ufa, killing 1,200 people, so the duration of Spacebridge was immediately extended.

Internet era

In 1993, the World Wide Web became accessible to the general public, marking a monumental shift in how information was shared and consumed. This year is often regarded as the dawn of the mass use of the internet, transforming it from a specialized tool for researchers and academics into a ubiquitous part of everyday life. For the first time, people could consult with physicians without needing to be physically present in the same location, breaking down geographical barriers and making healthcare more accessible to those in remote or underserved areas.

Mobile phones

The advent of mobile phones at the turn of the millennium marked another significant turning point in the realm of telemedicine. Unlike the cumbersome and stationary computers of the early internet days, mobile phones were portable devices that people could carry with them at all times. This constant connectivity opened up new possibilities for telemedicine, as it meant that individuals could now access medical advice and consultations from virtually anywhere.

The development of mobile applications further enhanced the capabilities of telemedicine. These applications allowed users to easily connect to telemedicine platforms, schedule appointments, share medical records, and communicate with healthcare providers through text, audio, or video calls.

COVID - 19 pandemic

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began, fundamentally altering the global landscape. As the virus infiltrated communities, public health officials and governments urged citizens to limit physical interactions, including visits to medical facilities, unless absolutely necessary.

The unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases quickly overwhelmed healthcare systems, exposing significant vulnerabilities in medical infrastructure and personnel readiness.

Telemedicine experienced an unprecedented surge in utilization during this period. Minimizing the risk of infection transmission became paramount, and telemedicine platforms provided an effective solution.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the rapid advancement and acceptance of telemedicine, transforming it from a niche service into a mainstream component of modern healthcare delivery.

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