The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as 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.
Telehealth is a collection of means to enhance care and education delivery, and its associated technologies include videoconferencing, the Internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications. These links allow patients to access their providers remotely and remove potential barriers to care.
In the face of escalating costs, an aging population, rising chronic health conditions, and a shortage of healthcare professionals, the healthcare industry is trying to find new ways to maximize resources and increase efficiency in order to achieve more effective patient care. Many healthcare professionals are embracing technology to help bridge the gap between limited resources and growing demands to foster more connected care.
Telehealth Expands Access to Specialists
Telehealth represents a significant component to enhancing the way healthcare is delivered by providing patients with access to a wider variety and better quality of services. It also increases access to physicians and specialists, which is important for those who live in rural and under-served communities not immediately served by a hospital system or specialty clinics.
In a recent Modern Healthcare article, American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous confirmed that more than half of all U.S. hospitals now use some form of telehealth. “There are about 200 telemedicine networks connecting large health centers to about 3,000 largely rural sites for specialty consultations, continuing medical education and other services,” he added. “Also, many emergency and critical-care facilities are using telehealth to bring in neurologists to treat stroke patients and intensivists to look after patients in an ICU.”
As more seniors and patients with chronic diseases choose to remain at home rather than enter assisted living, skilled nursing or hospice facilities, telehealth becomes an important link connecting them with their care providers. According to the Mayo Clinic, those with diabetes can use telehealth to manage their health by:
- • Using a mobile phone or other device to upload food logs, medications, dosing and blood sugar levels for review by a nurse who responds electronically.
- • Watching a how-to video on carbohydrate counting and downloading an application for it to their mobile phones.
- • Using the same app to estimate (based on diet and exercise level) how much insulin is needed.
- • Sending an email or text message to a nurse or diabetes specialist with questions.
- • Ordering testing supplies and medications online.
- • Researching the pros and cons of alternate treatments, such as insulin pumps.
- • Getting email, text or phone reminders for flu shots, foot exams or other preventive care.
Telehealth services can be customized to support many different uses in a variety of settings, from individual clinics to regional hospital networks. For health professionals and specialists, telehealth enables virtual consultation, monitoring, diagnosis and treatment, prescribing, and collaboration with both patients and other clinicians regardless of geographic or socioeconomic barriers.
According to the Center for Connected Health Policy, telehealth encompasses four distinct domains of applications, which include:
Live video – Live, two-way interaction between a patient/caregiver/provider and a provider using audiovisual telecommunications technology.
Store-and-forward – Transmission of recorded health history through a secure electronic communications system to a practitioner, usually a specialist, who uses the information to evaluate the case or render a service outside of a real-time or live interaction.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) – Personal health and medical data collection from an individual in one location via electronic communication technologies, which is then transmitted to a provider in a different location for use in care and related support.
Mobile health (mHealth) – Healthcare, as well as public health practice and education, supported by mobile communication devices such as cell phones, tablet computers, and personal digital (data) assistants. Applications can range from targeted text messages promoting healthy behavior to wide-scale alerts about disease outbreaks.
In a day and age where healthcare practitioners need to deliver both cost-effective and quality patient care, telehealth is breaking down geographic and socioeconomic barriers in order to provide a better system of care for everyone.