The global uptake of telehealth, or healthcare services offered remotely, has been increasing steadily for at least the past decade. Its importance alongside traditional methods of delivering healthcare has never been more evident than in the face of the devastating impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, helping to get patients the care they need no matter their location.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth is the use of modern technology to provide both clinical and non-clinical healthcare services. Much of this revolves around diagnosing patients remotely and delivering healthcare to those who are not on location, often referred to as “telemedicine”.
By using different forms of technology to provide medical care, telehealth helps to extend healthcare services to those who don’t have easy access. It also helps reduce the time and cost involved with traveling to an appointment. Telehealth is also crucial to reducing the risk of spreading viruses and germs.
Telehealth benefits are especially significant for those who:
- live rurally, have mobility issues, or have other barriers to accessing healthcare in person
- have a disease that can be passed onto others
- have been self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic
It’s also used in instances where follow-up appointments are required, which don’t necessarily need to be done in person.
Telehealth consultations are suited for diagnosing issues such as cold, flu, skin problems, and anxiety, as well as for following up on injuries and monitoring chronic conditions. It’s less suitable for severe conditions like acute chest or abdomen pain or sudden loss of vision.
How is telehealth being used?
There are a number of ways healthcare is administered through telehealth. One way is through video conferencing, where patients can get medical care from a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional via a secure online video conferencing platform. This can work for consultations, investigating and treating acute symptoms, and ongoing monitoring of chronic illnesses – all of which can help to reduce the need for hospitalization, nurse visits, and unnecessary travel for medical assistance.
Another way telehealth is used is through mobile health. The World Health Organization defines this as the use of mobile and wireless technologies to support the achievement of health objectives. In practical terms, this involves the use of apps and devices to tend to patients’ health needs, much in the same way as mobile banking and shopping have helped customers in those sectors.
Mobile health and video conferencing go hand-in-hand with remote patient monitoring, which involves the remote monitoring of patient symptoms and gathering of patient data. Technology helps to bridge the gap between the physical healthcare space and the patient. This could take the form of wearable technology that monitors a patient’s blood pressure, oxygen levels, or other metrics and it can help alert healthcare professionals to any issues and allow them to deliver treatment without hospitalization.
Another major way telehealth is used is through store-and-forward. This involves collecting clinical information – such as a patient’s medical history, images, lab reports – on a secure and/or private platform and then sending it on electronically for evaluation. A real life example could include images of a patient’s condition, such as a skin lesion, that are sent to a specialist for further advice.
Challenges with telehealth
Telehealth is an effective and modern approach to healthcare in the right situations, but it’s not without its challenges. One is privacy, protecting patient information and preventing security breaches. This involves ensuring that only those who are meant to be in consultations are there and that only those who have the right to access patient information can do so. Video conferencing can be especially problematic as it can be more easily exposed to hackers. Consequently, healthcare providers have to invest in high-level security.
The effectiveness of telehealth depends on fast internet connections and other modern technology, so there are also access challenges for some patients, especially those who live rurally or those unable to afford the technology and internet access.
Another significant issue is who pays for telehealth. Policies can vary greatly and can defeat one of the purposes of telehealth, which is to cut on down costs for patients. Vague policies can also put off healthcare providers from implementing telehealth solutions as there might be no guarantee that the care they provide can be reimbursed, or it may be unclear what is reimbursed and what isn’t.
Misdiagnosis is a serious issue that is prevalent in traditional healthcare. However, not seeing a patient in person, as is the case with telehealth, increases the risk of misdiagnosis. This in turn could cause patients to incur more costs as they would need to spend money on seeing a healthcare professional in person anyway to get the right diagnosis.
Telehealth and your practice
If you are considering implementing telehealth services, you are probably weighing whether telehealth makes sense for your particular healthcare practice. You need to think about the types of patients your clinic treats and how many of them would be able to benefit from telehealth. Offering telehealth services could also give your clinic an edge in terms of convenience and it could potentially help grow your practice by attracting more patients.
In the context of COVID-19, offering telehealth options is a good way to provide healthcare, while helping to reduce the spread of the virus to others.
When it comes to setting up your practice for telehealth, know the scope of the services you wish to provide through telehealth. Do you want to provide as many services as possible or only focus on certain specialties?
Be prepared to invest in technology that has a proven track record and which you are confident will help you provide the care your patients need. It’s important that you do not rush into setting up telehealth services without the right equipment.
Ensuring everyone in your practice is comfortable with using that technology is also important, so you also need to invest in training staff up and get everyone to practice using the technology.
You also need to know your local funding policies and the regulations governing your practice and how they apply to telehealth.
In the following article, we’ll take a deeper look at how to ensure your practice benefits from telehealth.
The future of telehealth
Healthcare is at a critical transition point right now. Telehealth uptake has surged as providers look for innovative ways to care for patients while protecting the masses from COVID-19. Many healthcare professionals have already experienced firsthand the benefits of telehealth, not just in response to COVID-19, but in extending their regular care too. It has helped to significantly strengthen healthcare providers, at a time when extra support, protection, and cost controls are needed.
To continue with the progress, regulations and policies surrounding healthcare need to catch up and be just as responsive to change and innovation. But we have already seen that regulatory changes have been coming in faster than ever before. For example, current waivers on Medicare regulations that restrict telehealth services to those who live in rural areas mean that patients can receive telehealth care within their state, regardless of their location.
How telehealth evolves in the future remains to be seen, but it’s predicted to grow exponentially in the next couple of decades. It seems unlikely, given the significant impact that telehealth has had so far, that healthcare professionals will ever look back.