Telehealth allows patients to receive certain clinical and non-clinical health services at home or remotely through technological means. This healthcare modality has become increasingly popular over the past decade as internet capabilities and other smart technologies have improved and become increasingly accessible for patients and clinicians.
For those who are bedridden, far away, or busy, telehealth provides unprecedented convenience and access to healthcare from a patient’s own home, in most cases.
What Is Telehealth?
This term covers an enormous field and dramatically impacts healthcare today and in the future.
The Health Resources and Services Administration defines telehealth “as the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration. Technologies include video conferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”
A Glimpse of Telehealth History
Telehealth has been growing and expanding since the first radiological images were sent over a telephone in 1948. Then Nebraska Psychiatry Institute used closed-circuit television to conduct psychiatric evaluations in the 1960s. And NASA developed remote medical monitoring for astronauts while they were in space in the 1960s, as well.
The internet emerged in the 1990s, allowing some telehealth technology companies to support increased access for patients to healthcare remotely. But the real beginning of modern telehealth was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided over $25 billion for health information technology and allowed for major growth in the healthcare digital network.
In 2016, The Health Resources and Services Administration helped to expand access to telehealth services in rural areas with a $16 million funding provision from the government which further bolstered the industry.
COVID-19 and Telehealth Growth
Telehealth grew exponentially in March 2020 as a response to COVID-19. Suddenly, every doctor’s office and medical facility needed to have telehealth capability as the nation underwent a lengthy lockdown. People still needed a way to see doctors without exposing other patients, employees, and doctors to illness.
The reluctance many patients and clinicians may have had regarding remote health care prior to the pandemic was removed abruptly by necessity. After months of patients and doctors having to resort to telehealth visits/telemedicine visits due to social distancing, telehealth is now part of “the new normal.”
According to www.healthcareitnews.com:
“Telehealth is ideally suited to meet the demands of inpatient care while at the same time reducing virus transmission, stretching human and technical resources, and protecting patients and healthcare workers in the inpatient care setting,” said researchers in the article.
How Does Telehealth Work?
Patients can experience telehealth services in a variety of places including their doctor’s offices, pharmacies, through their insurance companies, for COVID-19 screenings, and more. Patients may initiate contact via phone or online with a healthcare provider or sometimes providers notify patients reminders that certain labs or appointments are due.
Telehealth vs. Telemedicine or Telecare
Telemedicine, telehealth, and telecare sound very similar, easily creating confusion. They are not the same thing, so it is important to make a distinction.
- Telehealth has a wide scope and includes any health services provided through technology whether clinical or non-clinical. This could include health education services, remote medical monitoring, remote consultations, or e-prescriptions.
- Telemedicine refers specifically to clinical health services provided by a clinician through technology. It includes virtual appointments between patients and doctors and the electronic transmission of medical images.
- Telecare has a narrow scope relating to technology that allows patients to be monitored electronically at home instead of in a care facility.
How Does Telemedicine Work?
Generally, a patient contacts their practitioner/healthcare service by phone or online and sets up a virtual appointment to see a clinician online. They usually have to set up an online account with the hosting platform. Then they simply connect with a link online similar to a Zoom call or other video conferencing one might participate in for work.
If patients make an appointment through their insurance company’s telemedicine site, they may be able to request an appointment and have a video conference within just a few minutes from their request with one of many physicians who work for that site.
- Store-and-forward – In dermatology, radiology, and pathology, they often send medical data collected from a patient to a specialist, allowing for the medical practitioner to diagnose or treat a patient without meeting in person.
- Remote monitoring – With asthma, diabetes mellitus, sleep apnea, and other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, the patients can test themselves at home and medical professionals monitor them from another location. This may involve wearable “smart” devices that transmit data to the medical office, including watches, heart monitors, and blood sugar monitors. And it can include Bluetooth-enabled digital scales so that practitioners can receive more biometric data from patients at home through mHealth apps.
- Real-time interactive services/video conferencing – A patient meets with a medical practitioner online or by phone to receive services. Not all medical conditions can be assessed and treated remotely, but some can.
Pros and Cons of Telemedicine/Telehealth
Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. As our technology improves, we may be able to deal with some of the negatives but there will always be a need for some in-person medical visits no matter how large telehealth becomes.
Telehealth/telemedicine benefits are many, including:
- Much greater convenience for medical practitioners and patients.
- No traveling required for patients or clinical staff.
- Decreased wait time/wasted time for patients.
- Increased accessibility to healthcare.
- Lower costs and overhead, more cost-efficient.
- Improved patient compliance with treatment due to ease of accessibility.
- No risk of contagions being spread to doctors, medical staff, or patients.
- Doctors can prescribe medications based on a virtual session for certain conditions.
- Medical staff who are in quarantine or maybe at high-risk for complications due to infections can work remotely to help carry the patient load.
The downside of telemedicine:
- Some diagnoses require in-person examination or lab work.
- Doctors may miss important symptoms on a video chat.
- There can be technological glitches and problems.
- Regulations differ by state and can be confusing.
- Some patients may not feel comfortable using technology.
- Some patients may not have access to smartphones, tablets, computers, or other necessary equipment.
- Some insurance companies may not cover telemedicine sessions or may require patients to use certain providers or platforms.
- Security must be carefully considered along with HIPAA laws.
Types of Telehealth Jobs
The telehealth field is extremely large and expected to continue to grow in the coming years as Baby Boomers age and need more medical services and as people adjust to thinking of telehealth as a viable option for medical care in many circumstances.
Healthcare workers, themselves, who are involved in telehealth jobs fill necessary roles. And all of the networks, software, hardware, apps, and platforms involved in sustaining telehealth require health IT professionals to support them across the United States and in other places around the world, as well.
Medically Specialized Telehealth Jobs
In the medical field, there are numerous medically-related positions for practitioners to administer healthcare via technological means.
Teleneuropsychology helps treat patients with cognitive disorders. Telenursing allows patients to talk with nurses about what to do for minor problems, especially in rural areas.
Telepharmacy gives patients access to professional pharmacy counseling and monitoring over the phone. And medication reminders help people stay compliant with their medication treatments.
Telerehabilitation allows practitioners to talk with and assess rehabilitation patients remotely. And sleep technicians can monitor patients’ apnea episodes remotely through their CPAP machines, alerting them if they stop breathing for too long.
Doctors and specialists in many different fields can provide telehealth appointments for patients in certain situations that are almost like going to the doctor’s office for a check-up.
Health IT Jobs
There are also plenty of health IT jobs that support the technology and networking required to run telehealth companies and communications. All the jobs required in the business IT field, the financial IT field, and other sectors of information technology and more are available in the healthcare sector.
Hospitals, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and other clinics need IT professionals to design, manage, and maintain hardware, software, apps, and other technologies. Whether it is an applications specialist, a data scientist, an app developer, or a health informatics faculty position, all the different jobs work together to make telehealth a tangible reality every moment of every day.
What Is the Future Outlook for Telehealth?
Due to COVID-19 and the unprecedented need for telehealth services, the government and insurance companies quickly tore down long-standing obstacles to make it easier for telehealth to thrive.
Regulatory relief is now allowing telehealth companies and service providers to break through areas where formerly, there were many barriers. Insurance companies have adopted telehealth and have agreed to better payment terms to make it financially possible for practitioners to be properly reimbursed.
Because of these advancements and the greater accessibility for practitioners and patients, the future for telehealth looks brighter than ever before.
100 million patients with chronic conditions can benefit from remote medical monitoring and greater access to a practitioner if they have a problem.
The current explosion of growth of citizens over 65 years of age has never happened before in our history in America. The medical needs of this age group will continue to increase as the youngest of the Baby Boomers reach retirement age and the number of senior citizens doubles from 2018 to 2060. Telehealth will be there to help ease the healthcare burden of the largest generation.
Thankfully, with COVID-19, Medicare telehealth access has expanded, allowing many more of our millions of senior adults to participate in telehealth. Now, Medicare patients can receive services nationwide and the available services have expanded to cover more diseases and therapies.
Not only will patients benefit by receiving healthcare remotely from home, but patients in long-term care facilities are receiving greater access to healthcare and remote patient monitoring to improve their outcomes and quality of life.
Telehealth will become more prominent in our healthcare system across the board and across the nation as the barriers continue to fall and new technologies and strategies come into development to improve the system for everyone. Instead of lagging behind, telehealth is now part of the standard of care.
Ultimately, the goal of any healthcare system is to provide better medical care and well-being for patients. Telehealth is a powerful tool now in our toolbelt of options to help deliver the best healthcare possible to the American people now and in the future.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Telemedicine by AARP.org