Telemedicine is an idea that has been talked up for decades, but it looks as if it’s finally coming into its own.

Thursday’s news that iRobot’s medical robot, which would let doctors talk to and monitor patients remotely, stoked interest across the web. But ‘robodocs’ are  just one way telemedicine could keep healthcare costs down, improve care and increase access to patients in remote communities.

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) estimates that 10 million Americans directly benefited from some sort of telemedicine service in the past year, with clinical applications, like those for radiology and emergency room services leading the pack. A report this month projected that telehealth would grow 53 percent in 2013 and six-fold by 2017.

Aside from the rise of sensors, expanded broadband access and the ubiquity of connected and mobile devices among patients and doctors, several health-specific trends are making remote care more of a reality. More patients are coming online, meaning that fewer doctors will be needed to serve more patients; payment models are shifting from fee-for-service to managed care approaches that emphasize patient outcomes; and hospitals are under more pressure to keep re-admission rates down. Remote monitoring and communication technology could play a critical role in addressing each of those issues.

scanadu1Some telehealth innovations, like the iRobot that lets doctors visit  a patient’s bedside via an electronic avatar and 15-inch screen, seem like the stuff of science fiction. San Francisco-based Scanadu is developing handheld tools that have been likened to the StarTrek “Tricorder.”  A recent product lets you check your temperature, blood oxygen levels, pulse and other vitals by holding the device close to your body. Then it sends the information to your smartphone, where it can be sent on to your doctor. To encourage more innovation in sensor-based mobile technology, the X Prize Foundation even developed the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition (in which Scanadu is a participant). A “Magic Carpet” developed by researchers at GE and Intel, uses sensors in home carpets to monitor seniors’ activity and then predict and detect falls.

Other telemedicine services aren’t as sexy but could still go a long way in getting improved care to people who need it. Corporate giants like GE, Intel and Cisco have, for years, provided videoconferencing and remote communication platforms to hospitals to enable, people in rural communities, seniors and the chronically ill to interact with doctors from home. But new applications and companies are bringing telehealth into more specialized areas and the everyday.

iCouchStartups like Direct Dermatology and Iagnosis help patients seek skincare help from doctors via technology. iCouch and Breakthrough provide online counseling services, and Ringadoc targets consumers with a network of doctors available 24/7 to give advice and even write prescriptions from phone consultations. This week, the iExaminer App from Welch Allyn received FDA clearance to make iPhone-enabled remote eye exams more feasible. And a company called CampusMD this month announced a nationwide telehealth program to provide students with round-the-clock, remote access to doctors.

Still, despite increasing innovation, legacy barriers still stand in telemedicine’s way – for example, licensing issues related to interstate telemedicine and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that are limited. And then there’s the expense and time commitment needed to implement new platforms and train providers, as well as the skeptics who raise confidentiality and ethical questions (and not without good reason).

But more insurers, like Aetna and Cigna, and big employers, including GE and Delta, are backing the trend — earlier this month, WellPoint, one of the country’s biggest insurance companies, said it would support telehealth services for all employer and individual plans. And the ATA reports that other groups, including state legislator, patient groups and medical societies, are making new inroads in at least pushing for more favorable policies.

Four or five years ago, there were virtually no telehealth services targeting consumers. But Jonathan Linkous, ATA’s CEO said 400,000 consumers used an online service in the past year to receive remote health care.

“When a consumer realizes how much more benefit they’re going to be able to get [from a telehealth service], they’re going to wonder why [their doctor] doesn’t support it and go to another doctor,” he said. “We’re right at the tip of that now.”