Telehealth is defined as the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include video conferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.
Telemedicine was originally created as a way to treat patients who were located in remote places, far away from local health facilities or in areas of with shortages of medical professionals. While telemedicine is still used today to address these problems, it’s increasingly becoming a tool for convenient medical care. Today’s connected patient wants to waste less time in the waiting room at the doctor, and get immediate care for minor but urgent conditions when they need it.
Kelly had the chance to test out the Doctor on Demand app, and it took her about ten minutes after downloading the app to start video chatting with a cool doc on her smartphone. Kelly’s session took about five minute total, and as soon as it was done, the doctor sent an antibiotic prescription straight to the pharmacy for her. 20 minutes later, she got a text saying it was ready to be picked up, and in under an hour, she had her prescription from Walgreens. For those who prioritize speed and low hassle over familiarity of their own doctor (or health center), or even those without insurance, this is a real win.
Although this is more difficult to prove, big payers like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna are benefiting from telemedicine too. Patients with substance abuse disorders who are treated using various telemedicine strategies provide cost-savings for payers. The cost per treatment is cheaper overall and offers cost savings across the board. As technology continues to improve, the cost savings will become more visible.
"Being able to tie [telehealth] to a larger strategic goal is critical to success," said Mr. Heller. UnityPoint Health aimed to provide the same quality of care for lower acuity visits at a reduced cost. The company looked at more than 1,000 visits from its self-insured health plan, assessing the additional value it generated from its employees using telehealth rather than taking off of work for medical care.
“It is less about the technology as it is about delivering medicine via a new medium,” Clement explained. “Luckily, the C-suite is accustomed now to teleconferencing, so they have a feel for the benefits, as well as some of the communication struggles that come with being audio-visual from remote locations. Much like teleconferencing, there are situations where telemedicine will fit and others where it will not: It can’t be looked upon as a silver bullet.”
The growth in telemedicine solutions means that telemedicine options are now more diverse, with many more affordable solutions. However, most telemedicine programs do require the purchase, set-up and staff training of new technology and equipment – some of which may be outside the budget of providers in smaller independent practices. Many providers are already stretched thin on new technology budgets and staff training for EHR systems, imposed by the Meaningful Use program. Also, for patients who may not have access to a smartphone or a computer with internet, real-time telemedicine may be out of reach.
Remote monitoring, also known as self-monitoring or testing, enables medical professionals to monitor a patient remotely using various technological devices. This method is primarily used for managing chronic diseases or specific conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes mellitus, or asthma. These services can provide comparable health outcomes to traditional in-person patient encounters, supply greater satisfaction to patients, and may be cost-effective. Examples include home-based nocturnal dialysis and improved joint management.
Also impacting the rise of telemedicine today is the growing mobile health field. With the wide variety of mobile health apps and new mobile medical devices that are consumer-friendly, patients are starting to use technology to monitor and track their health. Simple home-use medical devices that can take vitals and diagnose ear infections, monitor glucose levels, or measure blood pressure let patients gather needed medical information for a doctor’s diagnosis, without going into the doctor’s office. And again, as more patients get proactive about using technology to manage their health, they also will be more open to alternative ways to get care – through telemedicine!
Erin Aas has worked in primary care since 2005 and provided virtual care since 2012. Since receiving his Master of Nursing from Seattle University, he has provided comprehensive primary healthcare and promoted cultural competency in a variety of community health settings. In addition to his full-time work in virtual care, he works shifts in a local Emergency Department. He is proficient in conversational and medical Spanish. Outside of work, he is an accomplished guitarist, choral composer and Ironman triathlete.
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Alan Pitt, MD, is a neuroradiologist at Barrow Neurological Institute. He is the former chief medical officer of Avizia, which was acquired by American Well earlier this year. Dr. Pitt also serves as an advisor to several health IT companies and operates his own podcast. He offers a four-pronged framework to examine the current world of telemedicine: direct-to-consumer, self-service, clinician collaboration, and "spaces."
^ Kontaxakis, George; Visvikis, Dimitris; Ohl, Roland; Sachpazidis, Ilias; Suarez, Juan; Selby, Peter; Cheze-Le Rest, Catherine; Santos, Andres; Ortega, Fernando; Diaz, Javier; Pan, Leyun; Strauss, Ludwig; Dimitrakopoulou-Strauss, Antonia; Sakas, Georgios; Pozo, Miguel (2006). "Integrated telemedicine applications and services for oncological positron emission tomography". Oncology Reports. doi:10.3892/or.15.4.1091.
As various parties seek more efficient ways to provide care at less cost to the patient, telemedicine's role has grown. It is often a time-saving way for a consumer to see and speak to a clinician for minor and non-urgent medical needs instead of going to a primary care physician's office or emergency department. In recent years, many states have passed laws that make telemedicine easier to practice, and federal health regulators are also exploring ways to further grant Medicare reimbursements for telemedicine services.
But as the National Policy Telehealth Resource Center notes, “Compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is more complex than simply using products that claim to be ‘HIPAA-compliant.” Not only does the telemedicine platform need to be compliant, all providers, patients, and staff using the tool need to ensure they are in compliance with HIPAA. A telemedicine software vendor, for instance, not only needs to build a secure product, but also ensure their company is operating in accordance with HIPAA.
Online medical care might not be the doctors and nurses of your parents’ time, but it is a huge advancement that will help care for your parents’ future. Geriatric care is greatly impacted by the mobility of older patients and using technology-based doctor appointments is a much-needed solution. So, is this new-fangled approach to healthcare here to stay? It sure looks that way!
A native of rural Washington, Katie Gieseke has practiced medicine since 2009, and provided virtual care since 2015. She received her undergraduate degree in Nursing from the University of Portland and received her Doctorate of Nursing Practice and Family Nurse Practitioner certification from the University of Washington. Her nursing career ranges from experience in the emergency department to home health assessments. During her time in the emergency department, she became interested in improving the effectiveness, efficiency and continuity of the health care system. She has a strong interest in illness prevention and look forward to having the time to spend with patients providing education on maintaining wellness, disease prevention and motivating patients to take control of their health.