Teledermatology: Your Questions Answered

By: Joseph English, M.D.

Teledermatology is the ability to provide dermatology expertise through a telemedicine platform. Dermatologists can receive medical information through visual, voice and data communications to consult, diagnose, treat and educate patients about their dermatologic concerns. Dr. Joseph English, director of UPMC’s Teledermatology Program, answers frequently asked questions.

Joseph English, M.D.

Does UPMC offer teledermatology?
Yes, the UPMC teledermatology program was established in 2008 when complex dermatologic consults were in high demand for hospital inpatients. At that time, board-certified dermatologists were on staff only at the larger UPMC hospitals. Realizing dermatology services were needed across the health system, UPMC eDermatology was created. Today, UPMC eDermatology is among one of the nation’s leading teledermatology programs. In addition to inpatients, UPMC dermatologists consult on patients from UPMC primary care offices and through a consumer-to-physician platform for UPMC Health Plan members. Because this is a well-established program, it was easy to expand capabilities to live video visits with physicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How exactly does it work?
For the most part, we use what’s called “store and forward” technology. A referring physician or patient will send high-quality digital images through a secure link within the UPMC electronic medical record (EMR) platform. The site is accessible to patients through the secure MyUPMC app, using their personal login, and it’s available to physicians through the EMR. This method means that both parties don’t have to be available at the same time. A patient or physician can simply send a request with digital images. A UPMC dermatologist will then access the images through the eDermatology program.

Synchronous teledermatology is a live video stream, which patients can access through the MyUPMC app. In this case, a dermatologist and patient or a dermatologist and physician are meeting in real time through a live video conference. By either mechanism, the receiving teledermatologist can identify the problem and offer the best evaluation and management.

Is teledermatology as advantageous as seeing a dermatologist in person?
Studies have shown that the diagnostic ability of a board-certified teledermatologist is equal to that of a dermatologist seeing a patient in clinic. Teledermatology also allows for rapid evaluation of a patient’s skin disease and instant triage to determine if the patient needs certain medications, diagnostic studies or an in-person evaluation. It reduces delays in treatment as the teledermatologist can order prescriptions and laboratory studies directly through the EMR.

Can you really diagnose my skin issues through a picture or video?
Dermatology is a visual specialty that is often pursued by physicians who are visual learners. During our training and continual medical education, we learn to become and maintain our status as masters of skin disease by studying electronic digital images during lectures and through photographs of skin disease in medical textbooks and journals. The University of Pittsburgh dermatology residency is one of just a few programs that train residents in teledermatology. UPMC teledermatologists are some of the best in the world at diagnosing and managing skin disease electronically.

What response have you gotten from patients using teledermatology?
Skin lesions and other skin issues can be very concerning to patients. The UPMC eDermatology program allows us to provide medical direction to more patients who can’t wait several weeks for an appointment or travel long distances to a dermatology office. Patients appreciate the quick response and evaluation.

Joseph C. English, III, M.D., is the medical director of UPMC North Hills Dermatology, professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the UPMC Teledermatology Program.