Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and the world. It contributes to four of the five leading causes of death including: lung disease, stroke, heart disease and cancer. It’s also been found that most people who smoke want to quit, so what’s holding them back? Lack of access to clinicians, counselors and educators to help them quit are a few barriers. Telemedicine could help by connecting current smokers to clinicians and specialists across the United States.
UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center in Dallas tested this theory through the use of a pilot study they call “Tele-Nicotine.” The pilot program enrolled male smokers from a local homeless shelter and provided them with a four week tele-nicotine course. The team leading the course included a cancer educator, oncology nurse and a counselor. The men met for one hour once a week, and 100 men were counseled over a three-month time period. Overall goals for the tele-nicotine program included; how comfortable the leaders were using the technology, how effectively they could – using the technology – make personal connections with the patients. Maria C. Grabowski, one of the authors of the program, explains:
“We wanted to know a number of things: Can we see their nonverbal cues? Do they know who we are? Are we hearing their needs? Are we facilitating group interaction? Are they taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle by reducing their nicotine use or effectively stopping it?”
Successful outcomes included nicotine elimination or reduction for patients. Overall, the results seem promising: 25 percent of participants said they had stopped using nicotine and 25 percent said they had significantly reduced their nicotine use. The team leading the course was comfortable with the technology and felt it was highly effective in getting participants to start thinking about quitting. There were limitations to the study however, including the length of the program. Participants were also more motivated to quit smoking because they wanted to become permanent residents of the shelter and in order to do so needed be to alcohol and drug free. Overall, this Tele-Nicotine program could be a good model for using telemedicine to help people kick their smoking habit.