Dr. Kovarik – Teledermatology (Podcast #2)

– Ryan O’Keefe, MS1 –

I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Kovarik to discuss her career, and how she became a leader in the field of teledermatology. Dr. Kovarik grew up in Texas and studied electrical engineering at Texas A+M. Having worked for a number of years at AT+T before moving on to medicine, she was uniquely positioned to apply her understanding of the communications world to medicine. Dr. Kovarik was drawn to pathology and dermatology because they were visual-focused fields. She has been in medicine for 11 years now, and has used her wide-ranging skills to apply telecommunications technology to underserved populations, most notably those in Africa.

Some of the major takeaways from our discussion:

1.) You can leverage your outside interests and knowledge into the medical field

It’s not always easy, but if you can define what you most want out of medicine, you can find a way to make it happen. Dr. Kovarik knew she wanted to leverage telecommunications technology to benefit underserved global populations, and that she preferred working in a field that would be visual. Taken together, teledermatology was the perfect fit, and at the time it was only just beginning. It may seem obvious at face value, but deeply knowing what you want is crucial for making it happen.

 

2.) Teledermatology is not Skype, and is way different than just outsourcing diagnoses

Before doing research for our discussion, I had assumed that anything with a “tele” at the start meant you’d be Skype-chatting with a doctor. However, telemedicine is not the same thing as teledermatology, though they share some similarities. At the present, teledermatology centers around storing and transferring images to dermatologists who can make diagnoses and provide instructions for treatment from afar. The key thing is that with teledermatology, physicians are both diagnosing AND giving treatment instructions. Thus, it is critical that the dermatologist understands the community where the patient lives, the culture, and the treatments and medications available to them. When outsourcing radiology work, the output is usually just an impression. There is less liability, because no treatment plan is laid out, and the work must be double-checked. Thus, there are a unique set of problems that those in teledermatology must address in the coming years before it can grow.

3.) The barriers to the growth of teledermatology are not insurmountable, but will require policy changes and activism

Currently, the obstacles facing teledermatology include liability, reimbursement, and scaling. While some programs, like the Botswana UPenn-Partnership, negotiate directly with foreign governments to lay the ground rules for the relationship, it can be tricky. In the coming years, policy changes will be necessary, and passionate physicians will need to lead the charge, demonstrate the value of teledermatology, and justify reimbursement by showing the hard work they must put in to make it successful.

 

Check out this article for more info on Dr. Kovarik and her efforts to improve and spread teledermatology services across the U.S and the rest of the globe.

 

– Ryan is a first year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine. He is the co-VP of curriculum for Penn Health-X, the co-host of the Penn Health-X podcast, and founder/editor-in-chief of the Penn Health-X blog. You can contact him at ryan.o’keefe@uphs.upenn.edu –

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