The effect of a teledermatology program on rural referral patterns to dermatologists and the management of skin disease

Stud Health Technol Inform. 1998;52 Pt 1:290-3.


Teledermatology can be defined as the use of imaging and telecommunications technologies to provide skin care services at a distance. The potential value of teledermatology is especially great in rural and medically underserved areas that do not have, or cannot support, providers specializing in the diagnosis and management of skin diseases. Rural patients and primary care providers should be able to use teledermatology as a greatly simplified and potentially less expensive means of referral to an urban dermatologist. In an effort to gauge the impact of a simple teledermatology system on referral patterns and the management of rural patients with skin disorders, we studied baseline rates of referral to dermatologists from five primary care clinics in rural Oregon. Economical, easy-to-use teledermatology systems were subsequently installed, and the effects on patient referral and management were recorded over time. The interim results suggest that primary care providers (PCPs) are reluctant to refer patients with skin conditions, even when the primary care providers confidence in the correct diagnosis and treatment plan for that condition are relatively low. The installation of a teledermatology system increases the number of patients referred for specialist evaluation dramatically, even while the number of in-person visits to specialists fell. Although diagnostic agreement between dermatologists and primary care providers was mixed, a marked difference was found in their recommended treatment plans. A number of cases were found in which use of the telemedicine technology system resulted in reversing conditions that had been poorly controlled for a number of years prior to teleconsultation. This work is important as an indicator that referral rates to dermatologists may be inappropriately low in rural areas of the U.S., and that use of teledermatology may improve this trend.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Dermatology*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Humans
  • Oregon
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*
  • Remote Consultation* / statistics & numerical data
  • Rural Health Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Skin Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Skin Diseases* / therapy