The highlight of the recent Steve Jobs keynote where he unveiled iPhone 4 was the video telephony feature that Apple named FaceTime. This is classic Apple, taking an existing technology – video chat, think Skype – and recasting it as a brand new invention.

Predictably, many commentators scoffed that FaceTime is nothing more than marketing fluff, rather than a real innovation. But, on the other hand, if one considers the implications of a zero-configuration feature that allows you to instantly share what you are seeing with a simple phone call, it may turn out to be quite profound – especially for medicine and the patient physician relationship.

Not surprisingly, the advertisement for FaceTime shows heart warming scenes of babies learning to walk, birthday parties, and graduations. But for technicians and repairmen, the ability to instantly show the problem to a distant expert could prove to be very handy.

For physicians, the ability to see a patient’s face as they answer a question is invaluable. So much is conveyed in patients’ body language that sometimes it can appear we are watching more carefully than listening. Thus, being able to see as well as talk to a patient remotely can be a dramatically useful tool for physicians.

For surgeons in particular, the ability to see the condition of a healing incision or the appearance of a limb can alleviate the anxiety of the Friday evening patient phone call, when the only alternative is sending the patient to the emergency room.

We are told that FaceTime currently only works on WiFI until the carriers allow it on cellular, and certainly for now only a minority of patients and physicians will have an iPhone 4.

Apple has submitted the communication protocol used for the FaceTime video conferencing feature to standards bodies so other software and hardware companies can technically communicate with the iPhone 4.  The end result being any phone with the correct protocols could video conference with the iPhone 4.   Until that happens, it is a brilliant sales tactic by Apple since families and technicians will want to buy two iPhones instead of one.