The Power of Telehealth: Empowering Patients and Providers across Cultures

The little boy sat in front of a computer at his family’s kitchen table.  On the screen was a close up image of his mother’s mouth, saying the word “halib” over and over.  The video quickly flashed to an image of a carton of milk that the boy recognized from his own refrigerator, then to other images of milk cartons, and finally back to his mother saying the word “halib,” or milk, in Arabic. 

Ahmed is 5 years old, and lives with his family in Saudi Arabia.  At the age of 3, Ahmed was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and has a limited vocabulary of about 20 words.  After failed attempts at finding help for Ahmed in their local community, his parents reached out to specialists in the United States. These specialists utilize telehealth methods to treat patients, providing access for families and providers across cultures, borders and even the world.

Telehealth (also known as telemedicine) is a burgeoning method of delivering healthcare services via telecommunication avenues.  Service delivery methods can include live video consultations between patient and provider, and the ability to upload and store videos and diagnostic information.  Initially developed, amongst other reasons, to help reach patients in rural communities, telehealth is now being utilized to provide services in areas where there may be a shortage of providers in a particular field, as in the case of Ahmed.

Telehealth has proven particularly helpful in the treatment of ASD.  Often times, individuals on the ASD spectrum may face challenges with face-to-face social interaction, but therapists are finding that patients with ASD often respond better to the less intrusive screen-to-screen contact provided by telehealth.  In addition, through telehealth methods, parents, families and caregivers are giving providers unprecedented access to their home environment, allowing for a critical piece of behavioral treatment: parent education. 

In Ahmed’s case, his treatment team recommended one intervention called discrete video modeling (DVM).  DVM presents information (such as vocabulary words like “milk”) free of auditory, visual and vocal distractions, paring down content to focus only of the specific information being conveyed.  Ahmed’s providers taught his parents how to create their own videos, using a DVM tool.  This tool allows Ahmed’s parents to insert videos of themselves pronouncing and enunciating words into a template, along with pictures of milk from his own home.  A video of an unfamiliar person saying the word “milk,” in English, followed by images of an American milk carton, would be ineffective, even detrimental, to Ahmed’s treatment.  The power of telehealth to provide Ahmed’s parents the ability to contextualize content to his own environment has an immense impact on Ahmed and his family’s success. 

Today, because of teleheatlth and access to otherwise inaccessible resources, Ahmed is watching a video, created by his own family, in his own home and in his own language, to help him build his vocabulary and vocally express his needs and desires.  This is the power of technology in action, emboldening families to take control of their own healthcare and empowering providers to work across cultures for the benefit of their patients.