Telehealth is an all-encompassing term that involves the remote delivery of healthcare services—including health information services and healthcare education—via telecommunications technology. Today, this technology is more essential than ever as global pandemics like COVID-19 or natural disasters take place. It’s also far more relevant as the U.S. government puts an emphasis on using telehealth as a public health tool during times of crisis.
What is telehealth—and how does it differ from telemedicine?
If you’re a healthcare provider, chances are you’ve heard the terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” thrown around. But what does it mean, and can it be used interchangeably with the term “telemedicine?”
What is telehealth?
Telehealth comprises a broad spectrum of digital healthcare services and activities. For example, this solution can include coaching for people struggling with addiction, remote monitoring of patients with diabetes or hypertension, mental health services such as teletherapy, and remote doctor-patient consultations (telemedicine).
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is a form of telehealth. Specifically speaking, it includes treatment-related services structured like the traditional doctor-patient consultation that we are all familiar with—just done remotely, via digital communication channels.
While “telehealth” and “telemedicine” can be—and frequently are—used interchangeably, the distinguishing factor is the type of clinician providing the healthcare services, and what those services entail. Telemedicine services are typically provided by physicians, while telehealth can be provided by any healthcare provider and include all forms of healthcare services.
What are the 3 main modalities of telehealth?
Today’s innovative technology presents infinite opportunities to deliver patient-centered healthcare. Telehealth can be divided into three main modalities: real-time, store and forward (asynchronous), and remote patient monitoring.
Real-time telehealth uses live video as its main digital communication method to provide virtual care. This way, patients can both see their healthcare provider face to face and speak with them in a way that makes them feel they are in the room together. This format is as close to a traditional doctor-patient appointment as you can get without physically having to visit the doctor’s office or a hospital.
Real-time healthcare delivered this way is especially beneficial for patients with debilitating conditions—such as chronic illnesses, cancer, or even difficult pregnancies—who may not be able to visit a physical location as frequently as they need to in order to be evaluated by their clinician. It is also a particularly convenient setup for mental health patients or those battling addiction who are having a difficult time leaving the house.
Store-and-forward telehealth involves gathering clinical information—including demographic data, medical history, and lab results—and sending it to another healthcare organization for third-party evaluation. Also called asynchronous telehealth, this practice allows care providers who offer different healthcare services to work together so they can come up with a holistic care plan for their mutual patient.
With all of a patient’s health data in one place, clinicians have instant access to information that may have otherwise taken them months to discover on their own through one-on-one consultations. This puts providers in the best possible position to deliver exemplary care to their patients in a timely fashion.
Remote patient monitoring
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) utilizes wearable technology devices to gather a patient’s health data so that their healthcare provider can monitor their health status remotely. RPM devices are wireless medical devices that can include a diverse array of products, such as blood pressure cuffs, digital scales, blood glucose monitors, and smartwatches.
Clinicians can use the data collected from these devices to track their patients’ health and intervene when necessary. With the support of their care team, patients can learn how to self-manage their condition with an RPM device—and thereby gain greater independence.
What purposes do telehealth services provide?
Twenty-five percent of Americans do not have a primary care provider. This issue is especially prevalent in rural areas, as many do not have access to clinicians in the same way that people living in or near urban areas do.
Telehealth addresses physician shortages
The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has found that the number of new physicians joining the healthcare workforce simply cannot keep up with the United State’s growing healthcare demands. In fact, the AAMC predicts that the shortage of physicians will increase by 120,000 by the year 2030.
Telehealth is an incredibly feasible solution to this clinical problem, and research shows that 71 percent of healthcare professionals are already using virtual services to provide care. As telemedicine services become more and more commonplace—for both clinicians and patients—they will become an integral part of healthcare that promises accessibility for all.
Telehealth helps healthcare providers educate and train
Health education—for both care providers and patients—is a critical component of telehealth. Healthcare employees need to receive specialized training so they can learn how to properly implement and execute telehealth services. While technology is incredible and gives us access to so many resources we would otherwise not be able to find on our own, clinicians can also come off as informal or distant if not educated in how to approach remote, virtual care protocols and procedures.
A crucial aspect of telehealth success also lies in the education services that exist for patients—especially those tasked with self-managing a chronic disease. The more a patient learns about their own health, the more empowered they are to make decisions that will benefit their overall wellness.
Telehealth improves patient engagement
Telehealth services encourage patients to be more engaged with their health. Many digital health systems allow patients to easily communicate with their care teams, self-monitor their conditions, and play an active role in tracking their well-being.
With increased accessibility, telehealth solutions are becoming a lot easier for patients to use, no matter where they live or what their health status is. These solutions address the social determinants of health—and eliminate many of the physical, economic, and societal barriers that may have prevented a patient from accessing care in the past. When more patients are actively engaged in their health, the general population becomes healthier and stronger.
What are the benefits of telehealth solutions?
Telehealth offers benefits for both the patient and the physicians taking care of their health. Whether your care team is focused on streamlining communication, creating a patient database that contains detailed and accurate health information, or making consultations more convenient, there is a digital tool that will help accomplish your organization’s biggest goals.
Telehealth offers a simple solution for value-based care that greatly benefits the patient and ultimately increases patient satisfaction. Here are some ways that patient care is improved by these solutions:
- Lowered cost: There are many costs associated with doctor’s visits that go beyond insurance and a copay—including transportation fees, childcare expenses, and time taken off from work, to name a few. Real-time telemedicine allows patients to receive quality care from the comfort of their home at a discounted rate.
- More access: With the physician shortage getting worse each year, it’s important that we seek out practical answers. With telehealth, a doctor’s services aren’t restricted to a certain region. This is especially helpful for patients who live in rural areas and need to travel to the nearest big city to get specialized care.
- More care provider touchpoints: With mobile health tools, physicians can be in contact with their patients far more frequently than the traditional care model allows. In other words, telehealth solutions encourage care teams to check in on patients in between visits to make sure they are happy and healthy.
- Better quality of care: Digital health records and streamlined communication with your care team ensure that you are delivering the highest quality of care possible. Providers can treat people more comprehensively, as a whole, because they have a holistic view of their medical history and patient-generated data. With store-and-forward telehealth solutions, this information can even be sent to third-party physicians—such as dermatologists or other specialists—so that they can also give the best care possible.
While physicians’ primary goal is to provide high-quality patient care, there are a lot of administrative tasks that come along with patient-doctor relationships—which take away some of their focus and energy. With telehealth solutions, care teams can increase the efficiency of their workflows so that they can focus on what really matters: improving their patients’ health.
- More efficiency: These solutions have the power to drastically improve workflows and streamline efficiency across care teams. With digital tools like automated messaging, comprehensive patient databases, and virtual consultations, providers can use their time productively and reach more people than ever.
- Lowered costs: SaaS telehealth systems are inexpensive to implement and virtual visits are vastly cheaper than regular doctors’ appointments. The total cost of a virtual visit for an acute respiratory infection is $79—making it around $67 less than a visit to the physician’s office and about $1,655 less than a visit to the emergency department.
- Easier to scale the practice: As your practice grows, you should be able to grow with it without sacrificing quality of care. Using digital tools, you can automate services—such as appointment reminders and visit follow-up phone calls—as you expand your healthcare services and take on more and more patients.
- More revenue: Implementing telehealth solutions will increase your practice’s profits. Healthcare organizations that take advantage of this approach reduce overhead costs, decrease appointment times, and improve workflows to save you valuable time and funds.
How can telehealth solutions improve care models?
This type of virtual healthcare offers a massive opportunity to drastically improve the way care teams provide patient-centered care. Regardless of a patient’s circumstance or condition, there is bound to be a digital healthcare tool out there that can help them access quality care and better manage their symptoms.
Telehealth solutions for addiction
Managing treatment for substance misuse takes frequent check-ins and communication through a variety of modalities. Telehealth solutions offer people struggling with addiction more accessibility to their coach or therapist.
Allowing people increased access to your care team through multiple communication technologies and channels—including video, phone, email, text, and chat—helps you better support your clients who are recovering from addiction and, subsequently, increase positive outcomes. Ongoing management of people suffering from addiction can lead to improved health and happiness and enable these individuals to regain control over their lives.
Telehealth solutions for behavioral health
Telehealth addresses the issue of maldistribution among behavioral health providers in the United States. Approximately 43.8 million American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and yet, nearly 60 percent don’t receive mental health services. Many different factors can hinder an individual’s ability to receive behavioral health services—including location, lack of anonymity, or simply the stigma that accompanies mental healthcare.
Delivering healthcare services through technology—such as with video consultations and using increased communication via patient-preferred channels—can help patients feel more comfortable and get the care they need, when they need it.
Telehealth solutions for diabetes
Care teams coaching people with diabetes can help them live normal, healthy lives—but they need to educate these patients on how to effectively self-manage their chronic disease.
Telehealth allows care teams to meet with patients who might not easily be able to come into the healthcare facility as frequently as they need to. This can be especially helpful for diabetes patients who live in rural areas and have to commute into larger cities in order to meet with specialized doctors—like an endocrinologist, for example. Real-time telemedicine appointments over video or the phone can save the patient time and relieve them of the stress that comes with commuting a far distance for a single doctor’s appointment.
With remote monitoring technology, clinicians can take virtual care a step further by monitoring their patient’s glucose levels. Wearable devices—such as continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps—use digital technology to help diabetes patients easily track and adjust their blood glucose levels. This can empower those living with diabetes to learn how to effectively self-manage their chronic illness and live a healthier life.
Telehealth solutions for home health
With efficient technology, care teams can visit their patients at home and continue the care online. Managing an illness or injury can take a lot of check-ins and patient-provider communication. Telehealth solutions allow your care team to check in with patients in between visits.
Implementing healthcare systems that utilize these services can even reduce the rate of hospital readmissions. A 2016 study revealed that monitoring patients’ vital signs via wireless peripherals reduced the readmission rate by 5.2 percent over 30 days, and 14 percent over three years. Technology is certainly not a replacement for home health, but it does complement at-home care by making it more convenient for you to become aware of problems as they arise and help your patients when they are in need.
Telehealth solutions for hospice
When it comes to hospice care, telehealth is best utilized for patients who are receiving care at home. Remote patient monitoring allows healthcare providers to track their patients’ biometrics from afar.
RPM not only increases timely response and intervention when a patient’s condition changes, it also eliminates the burden of travel to a clinic, urgent care, or emergency room for the patient and their family. This virtual connection and monitoring allows peace of mind for the patient, the family, and the care providers.
Telehealth solutions for hypertension
With RPM, hypertension patients can improve their blood pressure by learning to better control it. When used regularly, home blood pressure telemonitoring (HBPT) can result in a significant BP reduction, and better quality of life and independence.
HBPT is a great tool for patients with a network of care providers (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.) that are working together to help the patient manage their hypertension and comorbidities. When executed well, this approach can even result in the effective prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Telehealth solutions for musculoskeletal disorders
Recent studies have found that real-time telerehabilitation services for musculoskeletal disorders are “effective and comparable” to standard practice. Videoconferencing consultations can be used to replace or supplement in-person care as a means to reduce the cost and time associated with appointments. This can prevent these patients from having to leave work in order to attend appointments and from traveling more than is comfortable—or possible.
Telehealth solutions for value-based care
Telehealth solutions empower care teams to deliver value-based care. Virtual consultations and other real-time telemedicine make it convenient for patients to receive quality care—without leaving the house. Whether your team works with patients with chronic illnesses that make going out difficult, or patients who live in a rural area and have a lengthy commute to the doctor’s office, telehealth helps make your services more accessible to all patients.
Similarly, software programs that include telehealth technology, like PRMs, make sure that crucial patient-generated data—such as medical history and lab results—are available to every physician that treats a patient. Teams can streamline care between clinicians and across practices to make sure that each patient is receiving whole-person care.
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 appointments easily, this approach can be the difference between receiving high-quality healthcare and going without care at all. Some of the people 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 from a specialist they need to see regularly—to which they cannot take the time to commute.
- People who are unable to get adequate care due to social determinants of health.
Thanks to technology, patients that 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 United States may have a handful of primary care doctors in their area. When it comes to standard appointments, such as annual exams or a case of the flu 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 or diabetes, for example—it is 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 time and money they would otherwise be spending on transportation. In addition to real-time telemedicine appointments and consultations, telehealth can also help rural patients attend peer support meetings, educational courses, and other beneficial programs—all from their living rooms.
Telehealth can help people affected by social determinants of health work with specialists
Any healthcare organization that is implementing telehealth measures needs to address the social determinants of health (SDoH), or conditions in the environments that people live, work, and play. It is important for healthcare providers to address SDoH—especially when it comes to telehealth solutions, as they are, by nature, more accessible and adaptable to different 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. As discussed in the previous section, for a patient living in a remote, rural community, telehealth might be their only hope for getting necessary, high-quality healthcare.
Access to transportation
Telehealth presents a unique solution for other social determinants of health, too. Access to transport is a huge impediment when it comes to making the trip to a doctor’s appointment. If a patient does not have access to a car or a public transportation route that will bring them to and from their appointment in a timely manner, they may not be able to meet with their healthcare provider to receive necessary care. Not to mention people whose condition, itself, makes it difficult for them to emerge from their homes.
Telehealth services can solve this problem entirely with convenient, real-time consultations via video chat or phone. Patients don’t need to visit the healthcare facility for their appointment—they can just call in from their houses. With remote patient monitoring technology, clinicians can even track their patients’ health data to make sure they are healthy.
Poverty plays a huge role in a patient’s ability to show up to important appointments and consultations. If a person cannot afford to take time off from work so they can see their physician, they may never be able to get treatment for their illness or injury. Beyond that, lack of health insurance is enough for people to refrain from visiting the doctor so they can avoid incredibly high medical bills that could put them in debt.
Real-time virtual healthcare consultations are significantly cheaper than in-person appointments for both the patient and the 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 helps people get medical care—even in national or state emergencies
In times of national and state emergencies, healthcare providers are on the frontlines, treating patients who need them in the midst of a natural disaster, outbreak, or any other crisis they are facing. Healthcare systems need to be prepared to not only provide care to these patients, but withstand the damage caused by the emergency, itself.
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 and medical needs. Telehealth networks can stay up and running, even if major power sources and communication channels go down. 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 be otherwise unavailable due to displacement, unpassable roads, or emergency closures.
Telehealth’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic
In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, state and national governments were forced to swiftly adjust healthcare models to include virtual healthcare solutions in order to provide accessible, quality care that prevents the spread of the virus and is delivered in a timely fashion. While telehealth technology has been available to us for a decade or more, we had not yet been in a position where it was the best possible solution for such a large number of patients 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.
In other words, while coverage for this type of care was previously limited, there will now be more coverage when it comes to doctors’ visits via this virtual solution—where services can be provided by physicians and a range of other healthcare providers. These professionals include nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. Given the social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders that are currently in place across the country, this expansion allows clinicians to provide care that would not have otherwise been possible.
For healthcare providers, telehealth technology can provide countless significant 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.
Telehealth and the future of healthcare
So, what does all of this mean for the future of healthcare? Thanks to today’s technology, more and more Americans will have access to caring and engaged care providers.
Following the COVID-19 global pandemic, healthcare is going to see a major shift that changes care models forever. With more telehealth services available to the public as time goes on, fewer people will struggle to find a practical care solution for the symptoms and conditions they face on a daily basis.
For more information on how to improve patient outcomes with 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!