Telehealth Services: What Problems Do They Solve in Healthcare
Telehealth is an all-encompassing term describing the remote delivery of healthcare services—including medical information and healthcare education—via telecommunications systems.
Today, as we face global pandemics like COVID-19 and various natural disasters, telehealth technologies are more essential than ever. They’ve become far more relevant now that the federal government emphasizes using telehealth as a public health emergency tool during crises.
What is telehealth? How does it differ from telemedicine?
If you’re a provider of health services, chances are you’ve heard the terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” thrown around. But what do they really mean, and can they be used interchangeably?
What is telehealth?
Telehealth services comprise a broad spectrum of digital healthcare services. Both large healthcare systems and small independent practices are applying this solution when they use remote patient monitoring for diabetes or hypertension, when they offer mental health and addiction healthcare services like teletherapy, and when they provide virtual visits through real-time video conferencing (telemedicine).
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is a form of telehealth. Specifically, it delivers healthcare services structured similarly to the traditional doctor-patient office visits that we are all familiar with—only delivered remotely, through digital telecommunications systems.
While “telehealth” and “telemedicine” can be used interchangeably, the distinguishing factor is the type of clinician providing the healthcare services, and the nature of the services delivered. Telemedicine services are usually provided by physicians, while telehealth can be provided by any healthcare provider and includes all forms of healthcare services—traditional and integrative.
What are the three main telehealth modalities?
Today’s telehealth technologies present infinite opportunities to deliver patient-centered healthcare services. Telehealth can be divided into three major modalities: real-time, store-and-forward (asynchronous), and remote patient monitoring.
Real-time telehealth is the use of video conferencing to provide virtual visits with healthcare providers. It allows patients to see and interact with their healthcare provider face-to-face—making them feel like they’re in the room together. This format is the closest to a traditional doctor-patient office visit.
Real-time healthcare delivered in this form is especially beneficial for patients with debilitating chronic conditions—such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer—who may not be able to visit health centers and clinics as frequently as necessary to be evaluated by their healthcare provider. It’s particularly convenient for mental health and addiction patients having a difficult time leaving the house. It’s also a critically important way for coronavirus patients to check in with their healthcare providers.
Store-and-forward telehealth is a health information gathering tool. This telecommunications system collects demographic data, medical history, and lab results, then sends them to another healthcare organization for third-party evaluation. Also called asynchronous telehealth, this practice allows healthcare providers who offer wide-ranging healthcare services to work together to devise holistic care plans for patients.
With all of a patient’s medical information in one place, healthcare providers have instant access to data that may have otherwise taken them months to discover on their own through one-on-one consultations. This puts healthcare providers in the best possible position to deliver exemplary medical care to their patients in a timely fashion.
Remote patient monitoring
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) utilizes wireless wearable technology devices to gather patients’ medical information so that their healthcare provider can monitor their health remotely. RPM devices include blood pressure cuffs, digital scales, blood glucose monitors, and smartwatches, as well as smart shoes and socks.
Healthcare providers can use the medical information collected from these devices to track their patients’ health and intervene when necessary. With the support of health centers’ physicians or nurse practitioners, patients can learn how to self-manage their condition with an RPM device—and gain greater independence.
The main purpose of telehealth services
Twenty-five percent of Americans do not have primary healthcare providers. Rural health is especially difficult to come by, as access to healthcare providers is much more limited than it is in urban areas.
Telehealth addresses physician shortages
The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that the number of new physicians joining the healthcare workforce cannot keep up with the growing healthcare demand across the U.S. In fact, the AAMC predicts that this physician shortage will grow by 120,000 by the year 2030.
Telehealth is an especially feasible solution to this healthcare provider shortage, and research shows that 71% of healthcare providers are already using virtual services. As telemedicine and telehealth services become more commonplace for both healthcare providers and patients, they will become an integral part of the healthcare industry that promises access for all.
Telehealth helps healthcare providers educate and train
Health education—for both healthcare providers and patients—is a critical component of telehealth. Medical center and clinic employees need specialized training to learn how to properly implement and execute telehealth services.
While telehealth technologies allow access to so many new health resources we would otherwise be unable to tap, healthcare providers can often come off as informal or distant if not educated on virtual care procedures and protocols.
A crucial aspect of telehealth success lies in patient education services—especially medical information that enables self-management of chronic disease. The more patients learn about their health, the more empowered they are to make decisions that will benefit them.
Telehealth technologies improve patient engagement
Telehealth visits encourage patients to be more engaged in their care. Many telehealth technologies allow patients to easily communicate with their care teams, self-monitor their conditions, and track their well-being.
How is telehealth used in healthcare?
Whether care teams use it as an exclusive care method or a supplement to traditional care models, there are many ways that telehealth can be used in healthcare. For patients who cannot get to office visits easily, this approach can mean the difference between receiving high-quality healthcare and going without care at all. Some of the patients that telehealth can benefit include:
- Those with chronic illnesses that make it physically difficult to leave their houses.
- Patients that live in rural areas, far away from the specialists they need to see regularly.
- People who are prevented from getting adequate care by social determinants of health.
Thanks to telehealth technologies, patients who would otherwise go untreated can easily access exceptional care.
Telehealth helps improve access in rural areas
Telehealth can be used to help improve and expand access to rural healthcare. Many patients in rural areas encounter challenges and burdens that restrict their ability to receive high-quality care.
For example, residents of a small town in the U.S. may have a handful of primary care doctors in their area. When it comes to standard office visits, such as annual exams or flu care in the winter, a primary care physician is more than adequate.
But when a patient needs to be treated for a more complex condition—cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, for example—it’s likely that their PCP will need to refer them to a specialist in the closest city. In such a case, visiting a specialist could mean commuting over an hour each way to receive necessary care.
Telehealth uses digital communication technologies to help clinicians provide healthcare services at a distance. This can save the patient money and time that they would otherwise spend on transportation. In addition to real-time virtual visits via video conferencing, telehealth can also help patients in rural areas attend peer support meetings, seminars, and other beneficial programs—all from their living rooms.
Telehealth can connect people affected by social determinants to specialists
Any healthcare organization that is implementing telehealth measures needs to address the social determinants of health (SDoH)—or conditions in living, working, and playing environments that affect access to healthcare. Telehealth technologies are, by nature, more accessible and adaptable to various environments and conditions.
Access to health services and care
Access to health services and care is one social determinant of health. Patients in rural areas that must overcome obstacles when seeking specialized healthcare are a perfect example of how SDoH can severely impede a person’s ability to get adequate care. For a patient living in a remote, rural community, telehealth might be their only hope to get desperately needed quality healthcare.
Access to transportation
Telehealth presents a unique solution for other social determinants of health, too. Lack of transportation access is a huge healthcare impediment. If people do not have access to cars or public transportation, they may not be able to meet with their healthcare providers to receive necessary care; some patients’ conditions make it difficult to leave home.
Telehealth technologies can solve this problem with convenient, real-time consultations through video conferencing or smartphone chat. Patients don’t need to attend an office visit in a healthcare facility—they can just call in from home or work. With remote patient monitoring technology, clinicians can even track their patients’ medical information 24/7.
Poverty can impede a patient’s ability to show up to important office visits and consultations. If a person can’t afford to take time off from work, they may never be able to get treatment for their injury or illness. Lack of health insurance is enough to keep people from visiting a healthcare provider altogether—incredibly high medical bills could put them in debt.
Real-time virtual video conferencing is significantly cheaper than in-person office visits—for both patient and provider. Because it is an extremely cost-effective solution, telehealth is a wonderful alternative to in-office care when addressing the social determinants of health.
Telehealth provides medical care in national or state emergencies
In times of national and state emergencies, healthcare providers are on the frontlines—treating patients in the midst of natural disasters, pandemic outbreaks, or any other crises. Healthcare systems need to be prepared to not only provide care, but withstand the damage caused by the crisis.
Telehealth serves a meaningful purpose in times of crisis: to create equivalency across all systems, no matter how damaged or overwhelmed health systems are by the influx of patients. Telehealth technologies can function even if major power sources and communication channels go down. The technology used by first responders has advanced far beyond the standard walkie-talkies of the past.
A 2018 study evaluated one company’s response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma to see how direct-to-consumer (DTC) telemedicine could provide “virtual first responders” during natural disasters. They concluded that DTC—a technology that was originally designed for patients seeking assistance with minor acute illnesses—could help facilitate care that would otherwise be unavailable due to displacement, unpassable roads, or emergency closures.
Telehealth’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, state and national governments were forced to swiftly adjust healthcare models to include virtual healthcare solutions. These provide accessible, quality care that prevents the spread of the virus and gets delivered in a timely fashion. While telehealth technology has been available to us for over a decade, we had not yet tapped it as the best possible solution for such a large number of patients and for so many different conditions at one time—until now.
Following President Trump’s emergency declaration, regulatory flexibilities have been granted under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act to waive certain Medicare restrictions and regulations regarding telehealth services.
While coverage for this type of care was previously limited, now more virtual visits via telehealth technologies can be provided by a range of healthcare providers—and covered by insurance. These professionals include nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. Given the social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders necessary during a global pandemic, this benefit expansion allows clinicians to provide care that would not have been possible otherwise.
For healthcare providers, telehealth technologies can provide countless benefits during the COVID-19 outbreak, including:
- Making care more convenient and safe for your team.
- Ensuring patients have continued access to care.
- Saving time and resources during this critical period in history.
With increased accessibility, telehealth services are becoming much easier for patients to use—regardless of location or health status. These healthcare solutions address the social determinants of health and eliminate many of the physical and socioeconomic barriers that may have prevented a patient from accessing healthcare in the past. With more patients actively engaged in their own care, public health will improve.
Benefits of telehealth technologies
Telehealth technologies offer numerous benefits for both patients and healthcare providers. Whether your care team is focused on streamlining communication, making consultations more convenient, or creating a patient database full of detailed medical information, telecommunications systems can help your organization achieve its most pressing goals.
Telehealth offers a simple value-based care solution that greatly benefits the patient, ultimately increasing patient satisfaction. Here are some benefits of telehealth technologies:
- Lowered cost: Many different costs are associated with office visits that go beyond mere insurance and copays—including transportation fees, childcare expenses, and time taken off work. Real-time telemedicine allows patients to receive quality healthcare from the comfort of their homes at a discounted rate.
- More access: With the physician shortage intensifying every year, it’s important that we seek practical answers. With telehealth, a healthcare provider’s services aren’t restricted to a specific region. This is especially helpful for rural health—patients who live far from major metropolitan centers no longer have to travel to attend office visits for specialized care or to provide their medical information.
- More healthcare provider touchpoints: Real-time telehealth services allow physicians to communicate with their patients far more frequently than the traditional care model does. Telemedicine providers are organically encouraged to check in on patients between visits to make sure they’re happy and healthy.
- Better quality of care: Streamlined care team communication, along with digital health records that allow sharing of critical medical information, help create the highest quality of care possible. Healthcare providers in large health systems and small clinics alike can now treat patients holistically—as medical information and current patient-generated health information is shared and stored via telehealth technologies.
Store-and-forward telehealth solutions enable this health information to be sent to third-party physicians—such as dermatologists, OBGYNs, psychologists, or other specialists—so that they can provide the most integrated, holistic care possible.
Healthcare provider benefits
While every healthcare provider’s primary goal is to deliver high-quality care, there are a lot of administrative tasks that siphon some of their focus and energy. Telehealth technologies enable care teams to increase workflow efficiency so that they can focus on improving their patients’ health.
- Higher efficiency: Telehealth technologies have the power to drastically improve workflows and streamline efficiency across care teams. Telecommunications systems that feature automated messaging, comprehensive patient databases, and virtual consultations allow providers to spend time productively and reach more patients.
- Lower costs: SaaS telehealth systems are inexpensive to implement and virtual visits are vastly cheaper than traditional office visits. The total cost of a virtual visit for acute respiratory infection is $79, making it approximately $67 less than a visit to a physician’s office and about $1,655 less than an ER visit.
- Easier scalability: As your practice grows, you should be able to grow with it without sacrificing quality of care. Using telehealth technologies allows you to automate services—appointment reminders, office visit follow-up calls, billing, and prescription ordering—as you expand your healthcare services and take on more patients.
- Higher revenue: Implementing telehealth technologies will increase your practice’s profits. Healthcare systems that implement this solution reduce overhead costs, decrease appointment times, and improve workflows to save valuable time and funds.
How can telehealth technologies improve care models?
Telemedicine offers a massive opportunity to drastically improve the way care teams provide patient-centered healthcare. Regardless of a patient’s condition or circumstance, there is bound to be a digital healthcare tool out there that can help them better manage their symptoms.
Telehealth technologies for addiction
The management of treatment for substance misuse takes frequent check-ins and communication through a variety of channels. Telehealth technologies offer people struggling with addiction more accessibility to their coach or therapist.
Increasing access to your care team through a customized telecommunications system—including video conferencing, as well as smartphone texts, chats, and emails—helps you better support patients who are recovering from addiction and, subsequently, increases positive outcomes. Ongoing management can lead to improved health and happiness, enabling these individuals to regain control over their lives.
Telehealth technologies for behavioral health
Telehealth addresses the issue of maldistribution among behavioral health providers in the U.S. Around 43.8 million American adults experience a type of mental illness in any given year—and yet, nearly 60% don’t receive proper mental health services. Many factors can hinder an individual’s ability to receive behavioral health services—including location, lack of anonymity, or simply the stigma that sometimes accompanies mental healthcare.
Delivering healthcare services via telehealth technologies—such as with video conferencing and patient portals—helps patients get the care they need, when they need it.
Telehealth technologies for diabetes
Care teams coaching people through diabetes can help them lead healthy, normal lives—but they need to educate these patients on how to self-manage their chronic disease most effectively.
Telehealth allows healthcare providers to meet with patients who might not be able to come into the health system facility as frequently as they need. This can be incredibly helpful for diabetes patients living in rural areas who must commute into larger cities in order to meet with specialists—like endocrinologists and nutritionists. Real-time telemedicine appointments via video conferencing or smartphone can save patients time and relieve them of the stress that comes with commuting long distances for a single office visit.
Telehealth technologies allow clinicians to take virtual care a step further by well-monitoring their patient’s glucose levels. Wearable devices—for instance, insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors—apply digital technology to help patients with diabetes easily track and adjust their blood glucose levels. This can empower them to absorb the medical information they need to effectively self-manage their chronic illness and live healthier lives.
Telehealth technologies for home health
Remote patient monitoring and virtual visits allow care teams to connect with their patients at home and continue care online. Managing an injury or illness can take a lot of check-ins and patient-provider communication. Telehealth technologies allow healthcare providers to check in with patients between visits.
Implementing healthcare processes that utilize these services can even reduce the rate of hospital readmissions and emergency department visits. A 2016 study revealed that remote patient monitoring of vital signs using wireless peripherals reduced patient readmission rates by 5.2% over 30 days, and by 14% over three years.
While technology is by no means a replacement for home health, it does complement at-home care by making it more convenient to detect problems as they arise and help your patients when they are in need.
Telehealth technologies for hospice
When it comes to hospice care, telehealth can be utilized for patients receiving care at home. Remote patient monitoring allows healthcare providers to track patients’ biometrics from afar.
RPM will not only increase timely response and intervention as a patient’s condition changes, but also eliminate the burden of travel to an office visit, urgent care clinic, or emergency department for patients and their families. This virtual connection and remote patient monitoring bring peace of mind for the patient, the family, and the healthcare providers.
Telehealth technologies for hypertension
Remote patient monitoring helps hypertension patients improve their blood pressure numbers by learning better control. When used regularly, home blood pressure telemonitoring (HBPT) may result in a significant BP reduction, improving the person’s quality of life and independence.
HBPT is a great tool for patients who have a large network of healthcare providers—including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, and acupuncturists—that are collaborating to help manage comorbidities and hypertension. When executed well, this approach even has the potential to result in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Telehealth technologies for musculoskeletal disorders
Recent studies have shown that real-time tele-rehabilitation services for musculoskeletal disorders are “effective and comparable” to standard practice. Video conferencing consultations can be used to replace or supplement in-person care as a means to reduce the cost and time associated with office visits. This can prevent patients from having to leave work in order to attend appointments and from traveling more than is comfortable—or possible.
Telehealth technologies for value-based care
Telehealth solutions empower care teams to deliver value-based care. Virtual visits, smartphone consultations, and other real-time telemedicine make it convenient for patients to receive quality care—without leaving their home or workplace. Whether your team treats patients with chronic illnesses that make going out difficult, or patients who live in rural areas and have lengthy commutes to the nearest healthcare system office, telehealth makes your services more accessible.
Similarly, software programs that include telehealth technologies like RPM ensure that crucial patient-generated medical information and lab results are available to every healthcare provider that treats a patient. Teams can streamline care between clinicians and across practices to make sure each patient is receiving whole-person care.
Frequently asked questions about telehealth
In these rapidly changing times, medical billers need telehealth billing and coding answers immediately. They need to know how to bill for it, what codes to use, how they’ll get reimbursed, and what restrictions they should understand. Let’s go over some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding this topic.
How do I bill patients for telehealth services?
Insurance companies and Medicare are still developing telemedicine guidelines—so policies are being updated just about every day. Billing rules will always vary from payer to payer.
What we do know is that these major insurers currently cover telehealth: Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Humana, and United Healthcare. You’ll need to inquire with each to determine exactly how telehealth visits, virtual check-ins, and e-visits are coded and billed.
Does Medicare cover telehealth services?
With the onset of COVID-19, the federal government expanded telehealth adoption under Waiver 1135. Now, rather than covering telemedicine visits for patients in rural areas only, Medicare covers telehealth delivered from your office, hospital, or clinic to all patients’ homes. This new rule applies to MDs, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. If you’re billing through Medicare or Medicaid, you’ll also need to know how to bill a facility fee.
The Health and Human Services Inspector General is now more flexible with provider costs—often reducing or waiving telehealth cost-sharing covered by federal healthcare programs. For more information, visit the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services).
How do I document telehealth services?
Documenting your telehealth services is similar to documenting your in-office visits. Describe in detail the patient’s history, note all symptoms, and detail all consultative medical information that led to your medical decision or diagnosis. Then simply add:
- A statement that the service was delivered via telehealth.
- The location of the patient.
- The location of the provider.
- The names and titles of any team members who participated in care delivery.
How do I set up telehealth services?
First, you should clearly define your goals. Are you using telehealth to grow your practice? To increase access to your current patients? To save time and reduce no-show rates? Next, determine how you will integrate telehealth into your practice—what percentage of your time do you want to dedicate to it and during which part of your day?
Once your goals are set and your demographic groups are defined by levels of tech-savviness, you should brush up on state and federal guidelines as well as HIPAA telehealth compliance requirements. Also, make sure that your medical liability insurance covers telehealth.
Finally, start thoroughly researching vendors, making sure to ask basic screening questions. Is the cloud-based telehealth platform you’re considering HIPAA compliant? Does it feature a user-friendly patient portal? Can it easily import your patients’ electronic medical records? Can your team manage it without outside IT support? Does it provide quality real-time video conferencing? Does the vendor supply e-prescribing? Billing? Apps?
Once you’ve purchased the telehealth platform that best suits your needs, set up your workstation and enjoy treating your patients virtually. Wondering what it’s like to successfully embrace telehealth delivery? Read a case study about how one company used it to win behavioral healthcare victories.
Telehealth and the future of healthcare
So, what does all of this mean for the future of healthcare? Thanks to today’s telehealth technologies, more and more Americans have access to caring and engaged healthcare providers.
As a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, healthcare is undergoing a major shift that changes care models forever. With more telehealth services available to the public, it is likely that fewer people will struggle to find practical care solutions for their symptoms and conditions.
For more information on how to improve patient outcomes through digital health, download our comprehensive guide, How to Deliver Value-Based Care. Begin implementing telehealth solutions to provide individualized, high-quality care to your patients today!