Background: Dementia is a common but frequently undiagnosed problem in aging. Barriers to early diagnosis include a lack of routine screening for dementia and a lack of access to specialty consultative services. We conducted a pilot study to see if telemedicine could provide reliable, accurate geriatric consultative services to evaluate patients for dementia who were residing at remote sites.
Methods: This was a prospective cohort study that compared the diagnostic reliability of telemedicine to an in-person examination for dementia. Eligible subjects were residents of a Washington State Veterans' Home, age 60 years or older, with no prior diagnosis of dementia. Eligible subjects were screened for dementia using the 7-Minute Screen. Veterans who screened positive and consented to participate in the study received an in-person neuropsychiatric evaluation at baseline, and then both telemedicine and in-person examinations for dementia conducted by experienced geriatric psychiatrists. The accuracy of the telemedicine diagnosis was estimated by comparing it to the diagnosis from the clinical examination. Three geriatric psychiatrists who were blinded to the results of the clinical examination conducted the telemedicine and in-person examinations. We also assessed attitudes of the subjects and geriatric psychiatrists towards the telemedicine sessions.
Results: Eighteen of 85 subjects screened were 'positive' for dementia on the 7 Minute Screen. Of these, 16 consented to participate in the telemedicine study. Twelve of the 16 subjects were subsequently diagnosed with dementia by the telemedicine examination. The telemedicine diagnoses were in 100% agreement with the diagnoses from the in-person clinical examinations. Moreover, the subjects reported a high degree of satisfaction with the telemedicine experience and that they would like to have further care through telemedicine in the future. The geriatric psychiatrists reported technical difficulties with the audio-visual quality of telemedicine in the initial phases of the project that resolved as familiarity with the telemedicine equipment increased. None of these problems had an adverse impact on the diagnostic accuracy of telemedicine.
Conclusions: We found that telemedicine was as accurate as an in-person clinical examination in establishing the diagnosis of dementia. In addition, subjects reported a high degree of satisfaction with telemedicine and a willingness to participate in telemedicine clinical care in the future. Given the large increase in the aging population and the shortage of geriatric psychiatrists nationally, it appears that telemedicine may be a promising means to expand the availability of geriatric psychiatric consultation to remote areas.