What is Telehealth?
“What is Telehealth?” is one of the top-searched keywords in the healthcare domain. There are millions of pages available discussing the role and benefits of using telehealth services in the modern era. According to recent research, the use of telehealth services has increased by 38x during the COVID-19 months as compared to the pre-COVID baseline. In the US, $250 billion of the overall healthcare spend could be potentially reserved for modernizing existing infrastructure to fully-enabled telehealth platforms, including for virtual patient monitoring and drug prescription.
According to a widely accepted definition of telehealth, “the use of electronic information and telecommunications 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.”
Telehealth Versus Telemedicine
Telehealth is different from telemedicine because it refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare services than telemedicine. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.
Where Is Telehealth Market Heading?
In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance advising people and health care providers in areas affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic to practise social distancing, specifically recommending that health care facilities and providers offer clinical services via virtual means such as telehealth. Telehealth refers to the use of two-way telecommunications technologies to deliver clinical health care via a variety of remote methods. The CDC analysed de-identified encounter (i.e., visit) data from four of the largest U.S. telehealth providers that provide services in all states to examine changes in the frequency of use of telehealth services during the early pandemic period.
The trends in telehealth encounters from January to March 2020 (surveillance weeks 1–13) were compared to the same weeks in 2019. The number of telehealth visits increased by 50% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, with a 154 percent increase in visits noted in surveillance week 13 in 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. During the period January–March 2020, the majority of encounters were from patients seeking treatment for conditions other than COVID-19. However, during the last three weeks of March 2020 (surveillance weeks 11–13), the proportion of COVID-19–related encounters increased significantly (from 5.5 percent to 16.2 percent; p0.05). This significant shift in practise patterns has consequences for both immediate response efforts and long-term population health. Continuing telehealth policy changes and regulatory waivers may improve access to acute, chronic, primary, and speciality care during and after the pandemic.
How Telehealth Works? A Quick Overview
Telehealth involves the use of digital tools and platforms for communications and information management between the healthcare service provider, and patient. Telehealth works in a connected online ecosystem that involves the use of smartphones, tablets and computers.
Telehealth allows users to communicate remotely with their doctors over video calls using mobile devices and access the best possible healthcare information and support. In a few words, we can say telehealth is ‘healthcare servicing from a distance’. In recent months, we have seen emerging technologies influencing the adoption of telehealth services at local as well as global levels.
For example, the rampant use of wearables and tracking devices are directly attributed to the latest advancement in the telehealth industry.
What are the different technologies:
- Patient monitoring
- Remote sensing
- Virtual chat
- Health record data
- Store and forward imaging
- Wearable devices and video conferencing
Live video conferencing, mobile health apps and remote patient monitoring are some of the examples of technologies that are used in telehealth.
Nowadays telehealth is becoming an important component of the healthcare system. These applications give access to patients to track healthcare measurements, medication and appointment reminders. There are several options available where one can get specialized care through telehealth such as Lab tests or X-ray results, therapy or online counselling, dermatology, eye exams, nutrition counselling, mental health counselling, weight loss tips, prescription management, follow-ups, urgent care issues like cough, cold, common rashes, stomach aches, etc.
Remote monitoring tools, including blood pressure monitors, mobility trackers and glucometers, allow doctors to monitor the health of their patients and their response to the treatment.
Top 5 Telehealth Applications
Though in-person office visits are necessary in some cases, virtual visits are becoming more popular. Telehealth has many advantages. As in recent situations, limiting physical contact reduces everyone’s exposure to COVID-19, and you can get updates and timely follow-ups via phone or video chat without wasting time in long lines. Other advantages include:
- One can obtain healthcare from wherever they are – at home, at work, or even while travelling.
- Can reduce the time it takes to get an appointment
- Obtaining care from a specialist when distance is a factor
- Less expensive than an in-person visit
- There are numerous opportunities to improve healthcare delivery.
- Provision of medical services and assistance as soon as possible
- Virtual primary health care is being expanded.
Because approximately 95% of the American population owns a cell phone and 77 per cent own a smartphone, these devices can be used to promote telehealth. It has the potential to lower healthcare costs in the United States.
Several telehealth technologies are being introduced, including video and audio technologies, mHealth (or mobile health), remote patient monitoring (RPM), digital photography, and store and forward technologies. Video conferencing technology has been used to provide healthcare to inmates, defence personnel, and patients in rural areas.
Telehealth is allowing patients in small and under-resourced hospitals to gain access to specialists at larger regional facilities. Several organisations, including Harvard’s Safety, Quality, Informatics, and Leadership programme, use digital telehealth technologies to provide healthcare education.
Lack of budget or skills required to use these gadgets seriously deters users from completely shifting to a mobile healthcare service provider or telehealth services provider.
Telehealth, like all other technologies, has some drawbacks, which include:
- If a patient visits someone who is not his regular provider, he or she may not be aware of the patient’s medical history.
- In some cases, the provider may be unable to diagnose the actual issue over a virtual call.
- Telehealth visits may not be covered by all insurance companies.
- There could be a problem with a small network area.
- If a patient has a complicated medical history, computer-driven decision-making models may be ineffective.
Telehealth technologies are increasingly being adopted and implemented as a cost-effective and efficient method of delivering and accessing health care services. Public health emergencies have become a global concern since the COVID-19 outbreak. In such cases, telehealth is a viable option.
According to an article published by Reed V. Tuckson, there are five trends that have the potential to accelerate telehealth adoption into the delivery of healthcare, namely continuous innovation in the consumer technology market, continuous advancement in electronic health records, projected shortages in the health professional workforce, recognition in the delivery and financing of medical care, and growth of consumerism in health care.
Acceptance of telehealth varies according to socioeconomic factors and is classified by education level, gender, health, non-health profession, and digital age group. Several natives are unlikely to trust online information or telehealth services as reliable, so education on general definitions of telehealth, practical implementation, and reliability is required even for digital users. In order to successfully implement telehealth, patients must be educated on how to use it comfortably.
To summarise, telehealth technology is a new and effective method of providing virtualized healthcare that meets a patient’s immediate needs while reducing non-emergency hospital visits, health counselling sessions, and so on. Healthcare professionals and patients will be better informed and educated as a result of research and innovation on possible options.