What is Telehealth?
Almost everything is available online, and electronic health information is no exception. The dissemination of telehealth, also referred to as telemedicine, emerged as early as the late 1960s. A lot has changed since then. Though, technology, regulations, and financial limitations lead to a history of slow progress and adaptation of telehealth.
The purpose of telemedicine is to provide patients with healthcare on their phones, laptops, or any other technological device with internet access.
Telehealth services may involve:
- Discussing medical concerns with a physician over the phone or through video chat
- Allowing remote patient monitoring for doctors to observe vitals
- Communicating with doctors and nurses over email and secure messaging to share reports and patient forms
Additionally, for most patients, managing health conditions or updating medications with telehealth can be more accessible than having to arrange an in-person appointment or go to a doctor’s office to sign documents.
Specific options may include:
- Dermatology care
- Specific types of cancer care
- Therapy and counseling
- Post-surgical check-ups
- Prescription management
- Results from lab tests or x-rays
- Critical attention for seasonal flu, colds, and other acute diseases
- Treatment and follow-ups for chronic conditions
How Telehealth Emerged as a Service
While the demand for telemedicine may have increased, the quality of technology and broadband infrastructure have been inadequate. To address this, the 2010 “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan” by President Obama focused on improving remote patient monitoring, electronic health records, and similar medical technologies.
According to mHealthIntelligence, this began a formal implementation of telehealth. Federal legislation and healthcare reforms have been essential to mobile health tools, EHR systems, and electronic prescribing. Without them, facilities would not be able to legally endorse or administer telehealth.
Largely, the COVID-19 pandemic forced patients to stay home, where doctors and medical practices needed to adapt to telemedicine services. Before this time, there wasn’t a dependency on telehealth, as patients had the option to go to in-person appointments. An article from JCO Oncology Practice highlights the pandemic’s urgency for telehealth. Between March 2019 and March 2020, there was a 154% overall increase in telemedicine. Even more, the article also emphasized the rapid increase of this technology in the oncology community.
The Benefits for Cancer Patients
During COVID-19, cancer patients and those affected by serious illnesses can still have access to critical health benefits which respect physical distancing. Cancer patients may require more rigorous check-ins, monitoring, and services.
For example, mesothelioma is a type of cancer that primarily targets the lungs. Patients with lung cancer may experience worsened symptoms of COVID-19. Mesothelioma cancer centers with doctors who specialize in mesothelioma treatment may be far from patients. The average age of a patient diagnosed with mesothelioma is 74 years old, making this disease even more aggressive, partially because the tumor has had time to spread and the patient’s age can be a challenging factor. This could make telehealth services more ideal.
Cancer treatment can be advantageous for the following reasons:
- Distance and Travel – A cancer patient may be able to meet with doctors online, rather than traveling hundreds or thousands of miles away for special treatment for a particular cancer center. This may benefit rural patients living in hard-to-reach areas.
- Cost – Several studies demonstrate how telehealth can be cost-efficient. Some in-person appointments may be more expensive due to travel expenses.
- Quality of Care – Many patients report that there was no gap in contentment with services in comparison to in-person visits.
- Increased Frequency of Patient Interactions – A discourse on the pros and cons of telehealth noted how some oncologists believe “that for…high-risk patients, telehealth could be utilized to anticipate potential emergency department visits or hospital admissions.”
- Reduced Disease Contact – Patients with a contagious illness who choose to use telehealth services can allow a cancer patient to see a doctor for required in-person appointments without the risk of coming in contact.
The Disadvantages for Cancer Patients
Depending on the exact diagnosis and stage, telemedicine may not work for every cancer patient. In the discourse amongst oncologists weighing the benefits and disadvantages, there were some valid points:
- Lack of Physical Interaction – There were concerns that if a patient required physical examinations, telehealth could not provide the same standards. Telehealth could rely more on the patient’s own knowledge, rather than the expertise of the doctor. This could lead to missed findings and incomplete reports.
- Not Applicable for Every Appointment – Lab tests, vitals, and explaining complicated referrals, results, and treatments cannot always be done online. Even for some cancer patients, they must go in for radiation or chemotherapy or have a better interaction in an office.
- Relationships – The patient experience is unique in oncology. Some physicians see a decrease in bonding within telehealth. And if a patient should receive life-changing news, it’s better to be done in person.
The Current State of Telehealth
It’s clear that telemedicine should not be ruled out as an option for patients to explore. The study’s results concluded how medical professionals should “emphasize the need to address oncology patient’s access to telehealth technology.” This is pertinent for older populations as well, who may not be able to travel or find telehealth more convenient.
Telemedicine is still growing. As different patients seek treatment and management, it will expand and improve to best fit the needs. Even as the pandemic may be coming to an end, it has drastically altered how medical information is received and accessed.