Does Your Doctor Use Telehealth?

Haley Dyson
February 21, 2020

In the age of technology, new advances are constantly changing many different aspects of life. This can range from the prevalence of social media’s impact on our daily lives to self-checkouts now found in most supermarkets. Healthcare is no exception and is always ever-changing due to new breakthroughs. One example of this is the emergence of telehealth.

According to the Department of Health, telehealth is “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”

Telehealth is the next step in healthcare technology. In many senior facilities, for example, nurses are able to measure senior residents’ vital signs from outside of the patient’s room. Another example is when doctors share documents electronically using an app.

Telehealth is not restrained by distance or time barriers, as demonstrated by one of the first instances of telehealth. In the 1960s, physicians used telehealth to remotely monitor astronauts’ vitals while they were exploring space. Today, many health care providers use telehealth to make healthcare accessible to more patients. A phone call can sometimes replace an office visit. 

Connects Healthcare Providers With Patients

Telehealth connects healthcare providers with patients--many of whom are in rural areas and lack access to other providers. This can prove to be life-saving in cases where a patient needs to meet with a certain specialist, such as an endocrinologist or neurologist, in places where there is none nearby. In addition to saving lives, it can also help save time and money.

Telehealth can have a positive financial impact on the individual patient as well as the community as a whole. For instance, if you are diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, such as lymphoma, the nearest specialist could very well be a 12-hour drive away. Travel costs you a lot of your valuable time as well as money in airfare or gas and lodgings. Telehealth can also cut down the amount of visits you must make in-person to a healthcare specialist.

These savings add up and can have a large impact on the entire community. The Rural Health Information Hub published a study of 24 hospitals in Midwestern states that utilize some aspect of telehealth. The study determined that, “Each community identified an annual savings or other economic opportunity of $20,000 or more. The average annual financial impact for a community was estimated at $522,000, with a maximum impact of $1,300,000.” With numbers that substantial, it is clear how essential telehealth is for rural and underserved communities.

It used to be the case that utilizing and investing in telehealth services proved to be too expensive. However, due to technological advancements, such as a stronger and faster high-speed internet, enable telehealth to be much more cost-effective. These changes cause the level of investment in telehealth to be much higher than in previous years. It is much easier now for providers to communicate with patients remotely via audio and video.

Many Services Offered

There are many beneficial services offered by telehealth. Telehealth can draw upon various technologies including:

  1. Video-conferencing
  2. Streaming media
  3. Store-and-forward imaging

Telehealth can also be used in:

  1. Training clinicians
  2. Administrative meetings
  3. Furthering education for physicians

What Is Telemedicine?

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) defines telemedicine as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status. Telemedicine includes a growing variety of applications and services using two-way video, smartphones, wireless tools and other forms of telecommunications technology. Some services categorized as telemedicine include:

Providing Specialist Consultations

This is the number one service of telemedicine that has been mentioned throughout this article. It is essential to connect patients in remote areas to specialty physicians and will only increase in its usage.

Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)

As mentioned above, this is mostly seen in the care of senior patients. It can aid in ensuring that senior residents in living care facilities have not fallen and are maintaining healthy vital signs. This can also be used to reach patients in their homes by recording data and transmitting that data to a healthcare provider in a different location.

Mobile Health (mHealth)

This is the use of healthcare apps designed for smartphones or tablets. There are apps that monitor many different aspects of health, such as insulin levels or heart rate and pulse during exercise. Mobile Health apps such as these promote healthy habits.

Sharing Lab Results and Tests

An example of this could be two radiologists sharing x-ray images of broken bones.

Telehealth’s Future Role

In the United States alone, the estimated population growth is expected to increase from 333.4 million in 2020 to 416.8 million in 2060. With these increases come many challenges. A lack of specialty-care physicians and medical facilities, especially in rural areas and underserved communities, is expected to occur due to these growths. It is also predicted that chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, will rise and result in more patients that need access to care.

How will healthcare professionals care for all of these additional people and account for a lack in specialty clinicians? Telehealth and telemedicine could be the cure to many of these problems by efficiently connecting patients with the right clinicians in a way that saves time and crosses distances.

What’s Covered By Insurance?

Medicare, for the most part, should cover telehealth services for patients in rural communities that are considered a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). In 2019, Medicare added that telehealth services can be received at home for those who need dialysis or individuals suffering from an acute stroke, substance use disorder or a co-occurring mental health disorder. According to the Medicare website, additional services may be covered from home starting in 2020.

Is Telehealth Covered by Private Insurers?

As of now, there is no set standard for telehealth coverage by private healthcare companies. Some recognize the benefits of telehealth, while others do not and, thus, will not cover the costs. There are many states though, including California, that have parity laws that require insurance companies to reimburse clients for telehealth services at the same rate as in-person care.

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