What Is Telehealth?
Telehealth refers to a wide range of services used to deliver healthcare virtually. It acts as an umbrella term for the different services within the field.
This term most commonly describes two-way, real-time conferencing between the doctor and patient, or between two providers. It can be used by a physician seeking a remote consult from a specialist in another location, or by a patient seeking a virtual “visit” with their doctor or nurse.
Mobile health, or mHealth, usually refers to a patient self-monitoring and then transferring their data to their provider using a mobile device. This could mean tracking your daily food intake on your smartphone and submitting it to the doctor who manages your diabetes. It could also involve opening your patient portal on a laptop to view a recent test result. Mobile health can also refer to a medical alert device worn by a senior to detect falls and alert emergency responders.
Telehealth can be used to diagnose illnesses, address patient concerns, or help manage a long-term issue.
If you opt to try telehealth, you may want to familiarize yourself with the different ways telehealth can be used to share information. Here are a few of the terms you may hear providers use:
Synchronous, Or Live, Interactions
This refers to real-time interactions between doctors, or between a patient and a doctor. When using this modality, you’ll be able to speak with your doctor just like in a normal visit. It can be used to diagnose illnesses, address patient concerns, or help manage a long-term issue. Healthcare teams may also use synchronous interactions to communicate with each other.
In this application, health data is recorded, stored, and forwarded to the healthcare team to review. It could include snapping a picture of a rash and sending it to your dermatologist or having a radiologist send an X-ray to your primary care provider for evaluation later.
Remote Patient Monitoring
A remote patient monitoring device collects data on a patient–such as weight, blood sugar, heart rate, etc.–and submits it to a nurse, doctor, or caregiver in another location. This helps eliminate the need for frequent travel and makes it easier for older adults to live independently longer.
Mobile Health Or Health
When a patient practices mHealth, they use a personal electronic device like a computer or smartphone to help manage their health. This can include communicating with your doctor through text messages or tracking your daily sugar intake. mHealth is a rapidly growing and changing field.
Telehealth boasts many potential benefits, like making healthcare more affordable and increasing accessibility.
Telehealth shows great potential for making healthcare more affordable, convenient, and self-directed, which may explain its rapid growth. According to AARP, the telehealth industry will reach $36.2 billion by the year 2020, up from $14.3 billion in 2013. While the industry reported only 350,000 users in 2013, around 7 million people are expected to use some form of telehealth in the year 2018.
Experts say the aging baby boomer population has contributed to the growth of this field, as well as the increase in chronic conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. If you experience any of these long-term health issues, telehealth may be able to help you manage it from home.
While it continues to expand rapidly, the telehealth industry faces challenges from everything from cyber threats to lack of user engagement. While many people say they are open to seeing a doctor virtually, for example, few people say they have actually used such a service.
In addition, government regulation and insurance companies have been slow to keep up with the quickly evolving industry.
What Are The Benefits Of Telehealth?
Telehealth boasts many potential benefits, like making healthcare more affordable and increasing accessibility. For a senior, chatting with a provider through an app may be easier than making a trip to their office, and it will likely cost less.
In addition, it may help doctors provide better care. For example, family doctors may be able to consult with a specialist in real-time by sending a picture or set of data. This helps you as the patient eliminate the unnecessary wait time of scheduling another appointment and making another trip.
Telehealth may also provide comfort and security for seniors who live alone. If a caregiver needs to ask their doctor a question, they can now do so simply by sending a message through a web portal, rather than waiting for the next appointment. It may also help rthe caregiver communicate more easily, bringing both the caregiver and patient more peace of mind.
Telehealth can also help bridge gaps in care. A patient who’s traveling can more easily access their provider through telemedicine or a web portal. It can help rural patients receive care even if they live a long distance from the nearest doctor. It may also relieve some of the burden of providing transportation to and from the doctor’s office for both patients and caregivers.
What Are Some Of The Drawbacks Of Telehealth?
Even though telehealth is often more convenient, some seniors may prefer a traditional visit to the doctor. In some situations, providers insist that an in-office visit is the best way to diagnose and treat illnesses. For this reason, telehealth is often best used as a supplement to in-person healthcare, rather than a replacement.
Many critics argue that telehealth may negatively impact continuity of care. Continuity of care means engaging in a long-term partnership with your primary doctor so that they know your entire health history and the full spectrum of your health issues. Receiving care from an unfamiliar doctor through a video app may not be a long-term solution for managing chronic health problems. In addition, these apps leave the patient with the responsibility for reporting this interaction to their primary doctor.
Telehealth services may also vary in cost. While the telehealth industry ideally makes healthcare more affordable, there may be hidden costs worth looking into. Before using a telehealth service, always check to see if there’s a convenience fee. Also make sure that your health insurance company covers telehealth services.
The cost of using telemedicine may also affect doctors. Incorporating telemedicine services may require buying new equipment, and there’s no way to ensure that your primary care provider will opt to participate in this emerging market.
Because telehealth is such a new field, there’s also limited data on its effectiveness as compared to traditional medicine. For this reason, if you’re considering telehealth, it may be best used as a complement to your usual healthcare routine, rather than a replacement.
Thankfully, telemedicine is paving the way for more timely and efficient treatment in many of these clinical areas.
What Are Some Clinical Specialties That May Use Telemedicine?
As medicine becomes more and more specialized, the demand for specialist doctors is increasing. Unfortunately, this causes a shortage that can make it hard to get an appointment with a specialist. Thankfully, telemedicine is paving the way for more timely and efficient treatment in many of these clinical areas. Consider talking to your primary care doctor about using telemedicine for these and other specialties:
Telemedicine is ideal for talk-based clinical specialties like psychiatry. A doctor may be able to evaluate a patient using video conferencing, eliminating the need for either to travel. It may also help decrease wait time for a patient, since this provider specialty is experiencing a shortage. Using videoconferencing, seniors may be able to receive care from a psychiatrist without leaving their primary doctor’s office, the hospital, or even their own home.
Primary doctors are often the first to spot skin conditions or suspicious spots. Instead of referring patients directly to dermatologists, which may involve weeks or months of wait time for an appointment, doctors can send a picture of the area in question and receive consultation almost instantly.
Seniors with impaired vision may require frequent visits to the eye doctor, but teleophthalmology may help cut down on those trips. Like teledermatology, this field often relies on pictures taken by primary care doctors or patients to treat everyday problems like eye infections.
Cancer patients require frequent doctor visits, which can create a burden for patients with mobility issues who live on their own. For this reason, teleoncology may help make treatment and maintenance of cancer easier by delivering care virtually.
The field of talk therapy has seen tremendous growth over the past few years as smartphones and laptops have made it easy and convenient to access counselors through video chat. Seniors might prefer speaking to an online therapist since it also eliminates the need for travel. Many online counselors make themselves available for texting or emailing in between sessions, too, in case the patient needs additional support. This new market shows potential to help reduce the rate of isolation-related depression in seniors.
What Are Some Types Of Illnesses That Can Be Treated By Telemedicine?
Telehealth can make it easier and cheaper to treat a number of different conditions. If you experience one of the following, consider asking your doctor about the possibility of incorporating telehealth into your care plan.
- Chronic conditions that require long-term management like arthritis, allergies, diabetes, etc.
- Recovery from a surgery or major health event that requires follow-ups or check-ins.
- Previously diagnosed mental health issues that may require maintenance like depression or anxiety.
- Common health issues or illnesses that can be diagnosed by symptoms like urinary tract infections or eye infections.
Barriers To Using Telehealth
Despite the many benefits of telehealth, seniors have been slow to adopt this new form of healthcare. A recent study in Telehealth Journal and E-Health showed that several factors act as barriers to seniors using telehealth..
If a senior feels confident using a computer or smartphone, they’ll be more likely to try telemedicine than one who feels computer anxiety. A senior must believe that they’ll be capable of successfully using this new technology.
Social context also affects whether or not a senior will use telehealth services. Seniors who are surrounded by friends and family members using telehealth will also be more likely to adopt the practice. They’ll also be much more likely to try it if their doctor recommends it..
Seniors must also see telehealth as safe and reliable. They must believe that their health information will be kept private and secure. If a senior distrusts online financial transactions, for instance, they’ll likely feel the same way about telehealth.
How To Overcome The Barriers To Using Telehealth
Luckily, seniors can overcome many of of the barriers to adopting telehealth. If you’re a senior who struggles with computer anxiety, consider enrolling in a local course on basic computer skills or have a friend or relative assist you. You may also find it helpful to have a trusted family member or caregiver help you access your patient web portal and write down instructions for how to re-access it on your own.
Surround yourself with other seniors who are using telehealth and identify any tips or tricks that may be helpful. Make sure you only start a videoconference or access your patient information on a personal computer in a private location. This will prevent unwanted third parties from accessing your personal health information.
Your telehealth practice will be more helpful in managing known problems, rather than diagnosing new ones.
When Should You See A Doctor In Person?
Telehealth isn’t ideal for every health issue. Even though it can prove extremely helpful in treating ongoing, previously diagnosed conditions, there’s no replacement for an in-person doctor’s appointment..
Always see a doctor in person if you’re experiencing new symptoms. Your telehealth practice will be more helpful in managing known problems, rather than diagnosing new ones. Always plan to visit your doctor in person if you’re experiencing unidentified symptoms. Your doctor can diagnose these more easily during a physical exam.
Try to track your health to prevent emergency situations before they occur. This can help you stay in your home longer.
Always contact your doctor, a loved one, or an emergency responder if you’re experiencing a health emergency.
Does Medicare Pay For Telemedicine?
If you receive Medicare, it’s important to know which telehealth services are included in your plan. For most Medicare patients, virtual doctor visits are covered when a doctor is not available to see the patient in person. This might happen if the senior needs to see a specialist that the facility does not have on staff.
Healthcare Law Today outlines a few ways Medicare has recently expanded to include more telehealth services.
It now covers services like telestroke care, in which a doctor can use videoconferencing to help an EMT evaluate a patient experiencing stroke-like symptoms. The expansion also includes some remote patient monitoring costs, like devices for at-home dialysis patients.
However, it doesn’t cover everything. Medicare only reimburses for these doctor videoconferences if they happen at a medical facility like a hospital, clinic, or skilled nursing facility. This means that if you opt for a videoconference with a doctor from home–whether through an app or website–it may not be covered by Medicare. Some older adults, though, may consider it worth paying out of pocket for the convenience of consulting a doctor from their home.
Always make sure to check the details of your plan before engaging in any telehealth services like telemedicine, or “doctor on demand.”
How Can Telehealth Assist Caregivers?
For many caregivers, finding time to help manage their older family member’s health issues can be difficult. Accompanying seniors to frequent doctor’s appointments, coordinating care, and managing health records can prove challenging. Thankfully, telehealth may make the process easier for both seniors and their caregivers, helping both keep their independence.
For instance, a senior may wear a tracking device that measures their vital signs and alerts the caregiver when their levels fall below an appropriate level. This could help eliminate the need for everyday visits from family members. It may also allow seniors and their caregivers to spend more quality time together when they do visit, rather than focusing on health updates.
Many seniors and the adult children who serve as caregivers live far apart, and telehealth may help them communicate more easily. For example, if a senior doesn’t remember all of the details of a recent dermatologist visit, the caregiver may find the doctor’s notes via a patient web portal.
Lastly, telehealth can help caregivers in practicing self-care, making the caregiving relationship more sustainable for both parties. Online therapy in particular shows great promise for helping caregivers get the support they need while caring for an older family member. Accessing a therapist from home can let them care for their own needs in order to continue helping their loved one.
A Few Ways To Get Started With Telehealth
If convenience is important to you, or you just have recurring minor medical problems that require a doctor’s visit, consider finding a telemedicine service.
Find out if your current healthcare providers offer a web portal service. Patients can use these to see their test results and medical records, schedule appointments, and message their doctor. Most clinics provide this service free of charge.
Find out if your health insurance plan covers telehealth options. Research the details of your plan to see if you’ll be reimbursed for services like virtual doctor visits, online therapy, or home monitoring devices.
Learn about telemedicine options. If convenience is important to you, or you just have recurring minor medical problems that require a doctor’s visit, consider finding a telemedicine service. These are available through apps you can download or through websites. These online doctors can treat many common urgent care issues, like UTIs, colds, flus, allergies, etc.
Consider purchasing a fitness tracking device. Retailers offer many different options for health tracking devices that are inexpensive and easy to wear. Some examples include bracelets that track the number of footsteps you walk each day or the amount of sleep you log. These may help you claim more agency over your own health and live at home longer.
Coordinate care with your current physicians. If you do decide to receive care from an online doctor or therapist, make sure you tell your primary care provider and any specialists you see. Your care team should know about any interventions to be able to properly coordinate your care.
Telehealth is an exciting new field that could hold great potential for seniors. It may help them maintain their independence longer and take more agency in caring for their health. Remote monitoring devices, video conferencing, and patient web portals are just a few of the ways they can talk with their providers more easily. In addition, telehealth is enabling medical teams to share information and images across teams more efficiently.
At the same time, it’s important to understand the risks and limitations of this platform and to use it as a supplement to in-person care. It should not replace a long-term relationship with a primary care physician.
If you’re curious about the ways that telehealth may make life easier or help you live at home longer, consult with your doctor or health insurance company to see how you can make it a part of your healthcare plan.