Technology has played a vital role in healthcare for many years, and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated many changes within the industry. Along with additional precautions for healthcare professionals, there has been an increased need for telehealth to provide patient care services remotely.
Before the pandemic, research by the American Hospital Association showed that 76% of U.S. hospitals offered telehealth services as an option for patients. Research predicts massive growth for telehealth services, estimated at an annual compound growth rate of 38% over the next five years.
Although the terms telemedicine and telehealth are sometimes used synonymously, there is a difference between the two.
What is telehealth?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), telehealth refers to the use of digital information and communications technology to deliver health-related services and information that supports patient care, administrative activities and access to healthcare services remotely.
While telehealth encompasses telemedicine, one main difference between the two is that telehealth also includes non-clinical services. Some telehealth practices could include administrative meetings, continued medical education and healthcare provider training.
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the practice of using technology to provide remote clinical services for patients. It is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as healing from a distance. It was originally conducted through phone calls, but technology advancements have led to an increase in web platforms, online portals and video calling services that allow patients to connect with healthcare professionals either asynchronously or in real-time.
Telemedicine allows patients to discuss symptoms, medical issues, treatment plans and get some prescriptions without leaving their homes. Not only does it save the patient a trip to the doctor’s office, but it also increases access to healthcare for individuals who live in remote areas.
Telemedicine is generally divided into three categories:
- Interactive Medicine: Interactive medicine usually refers to real-time consultations and interactions between a patient and healthcare provider.
- Remote Monitoring: Remote monitoring is typically used in situations where a patient has a chronic condition and the healthcare provider wants to observe their vitals, symptoms and other key health indicators. That information is then electronically shared with the provider regularly.
- Store and Forward: Store and forward is a practice in which patient information is shared from the patient to the healthcare provider or between healthcare professionals asynchronously. Because the patient and provider(s) don’t need to be available at the same time, the number of potential appointments can be reduced. For example, a primary care physician could share images of a patient’s skin condition with a dermatologist or another specialist, who could then treat the patient remotely, possibly without additional appointments.
How has this changed healthcare?
The shift toward telehealth has come with both positive and negative changes to the healthcare industry.
Some of the positive aspects of telehealth include:
- Accessibility. According to the National Rural Health Association, there are only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people in rural communities, and many of these individuals aren’t in a position to access the providers they need in person. With telehealth, doctors, specialists and other healthcare providers can help patients that they might not have been able to reach previously.
- Safety. Virtual visits have become more important than ever as the coronavirus pandemic necessitates social distancing. Instead of having sick patients come in for an appointment or screening, they could first meet with a provider virtually to discuss symptoms and determine if a COVID-19 test or other care is needed. This could ultimately help aid the risk of transmission for the virus and other contagious illnesses.
- Convenience. Telemedicine allows people to access healthcare from the comfort of their homes. It also provides greater scheduling flexibility since neither the doctor nor the patient has to travel for the appointment.
A few of the challenges associated with telehealth include:
- Impersonal. While telehealth allows for greater reach, having a virtual appointment can seem impersonal for patients who prefer a face-to-face meeting. Having asynchronous meetings could also perpetuate the feeling.
- Technological issues. Sometimes a computer might glitch or have connection issues. This can be frustrating for both the patient and the healthcare provider, especially since they might be relaying important information in a short window of time. This could be more problematic in rural areas, where access to technology may be more limited than it is in an urban area.
- It’s new. Although telehealth has been around for a while, the coronavirus caused an unprecedented spike in demand and not all providers were ready for it. Some providers are still learning and adapting to telehealth best practices.
As with most new technologies, many of the challenges associated with telehealth will be alleviated as the field continues to advance. If you’re interested in a healthcare career, it’s important to keep an eye on telehealth and understand how it’s being used in your field – now and in the future.