In 2020, we’ve witnessed an increase in the need for remote medical services. Being locked in our homes, unable to reach out for help (not even when it was urgent) showed us that health care is actually a luxury when most of us believed it to be our right.
Desperate for medical attention, we sought solutions that would allow us to remain safe behind closed doors and still receive medical advice and services.
And just like that, telehealth entered our everyday vocabulary.
But the need for telehealth is not new. Communities big and small have been denied proper care for a long time. Sadly, only when literally every single person on this planet was slapped with the pandemic-imposed reality did we really understand the struggles of rural communities that are unable to receive adequate medical assistance.
For decades, proposals and discoveries were made in an effort to bring proper medical care to all geographical areas. Telehealth appeared as a revolutionary tool that would help redesign the health care system and allow redistribution of medical expertise and knowledge to all regions.
What is telehealth
Telehealth relies on electronic information and telecommunication technologies (including the internet, terrestrial and wireless network, video conferencing tools, streaming services, store and forward imaging) to enable long-distance health care. Telehealth establishes real-time, two-way communication between the patient and medical provider in an effort to deliver effective medical assessment, intervention, consultation, diagnosis, and supervision.
The two participants, patient and physician, are located at two different sites:
- Distant (hub) site, the medical practitioner’s location from which they offer their services via the selected telecommunication device, and
- Originating site, the patient’s location at the time of service provision.
To collect and transmit necessary information, we rely on medical devices such as smartphone applications, monitors, activity trackers, automated reminders, etc. The devices can then be used to provide remote monitoring services or mHealth services, that is, rely on a smartphone camera, microphone, and other sensors to send alerts, monitor users’ condition, encourage healthy behavior, connect with medical providers, and more.
Telehealth is classified into two types of systems which differ in response time:
- Interactive system that, as its name suggests, requires live interaction between a healthcare provider and a patient. It requires both sight and sound, as well as the option to share documents and information using digital devices.
- Asynchronous system utilizes a camera to record video, audio or still images with the intention of transmitting them to a medical provider for a review at a later time. This may include a store-and-forward technique that typically involves clinicians collecting diagnostic information at the originating site and then sending it to the hub site.
Telehealth vs. Telemedicine vs. Telecare
While there are those who use these terms interchangeably, telehealth actually concerns a much broader scope of services than telemedicine. More precisely - telemedicine refers to the provision of remote clinical services, whereas telehealth encompasses everything from administrative work, education, training, etc.
When it comes to telecare, the term is used to talk about the technology that is responsible for the delivery of telehealth and telemedicine services. Telecare can include mobile devices, wearables, smartphones, computers, or any other kind of telecommunication technology that enables remote diagnostics, tracking, and patient monitoring.
It didn’t take long for society to envision the advantages that come with telehealth.
First, it presented itself to be a well-optimized approach to healthcare delivery. In fact, it was a faster and as such more convenient alternative to the traditional, face-to-face consultation and examination. Telehealth helped bring health care services to underserved areas and increase the quality of life.
All-time access to medical services contributes to early disease detection. Annual medical checkups are not on everyone’s calendar, even though regular visits to your doctor’s office can help catch early signs of certain medical conditions and prevent their further development that can, in some cases, have a detrimental outcome. Telecare builds stronger connections between patients and their physicians, enabling more direct and frequent monitoring of their body’s condition. It is equally beneficial for treating acute and chronic diseases.
Telecare builds stronger connections between patients and their physicians, enabling more direct and frequent monitoring of their body’s condition.
Engagement on patients’ side also improved, with more people taking control of their well-being. In addition to more adequate medical services, telecare provides them with access to a large pool of educational videos that empower them to become more aware of their physical state and do whatever is in their power to improve it. This includes downloading apps to track their water, vitamin, and medicine intake, documenting their glucose and blood sugar levels, changes in weight, and more.
Telehealth also proved to be a more cost-effective alternative. With travel time minimized and patients getting the chance to connect with the medical provider much faster than ever before, the overall costs were reduced and the entire process more efficient.
Furthermore, this system strives to ensure all geographical areas benefit from an almost equal standard of care at all times. Eliminating the travel from the equation, the shortage of specialized medical care was suddenly no longer an issue, as patients got the chance to reach out to a specialist, even though there wasn’t one in their immediate vicinity (without it costing them an arm and a leg). Leveraging telecommunication technologies, the most relevant information can be transmitted across the globe and any world specialist can offer their professional opinion without having to meet with the patient in person.
What kind of conclusion can we draw? That telehealth delivers continuous, higher quality care (which you’ll agree is one of the main goals set in this field).
The future of healthcare
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date telehealth made its debut. Some would go back as far as 1924 and talk about the very first “radio doctor” who connected with a remote patient by sound and even predicted live video transmission even though the first TV hit the market in 1927. Others say the first appearance of telehealth occurred in 1950 when radiologic images were exchanged between West Chester and Philadelphia, but it actually took another 14 years to perform the very first long-distance neurological exam, consultation, education, and diagnosis.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then. All communication mediums, newspaper, radio, television, and the internet participated and contributed greatly to the continual development of telemedicine.
Slowly but surely, telehealth is bridging the existing gaps and changing how and where medical services are delivered. Newly-developed software and other digital solutions connect patients and medical professionals, enabling them to interact online and thus break the barriers which prevent some people from reaching out for help.
Unfortunately, we are far from the ultimate solution to world peace and struggles. While technology is bringing us together, the remote areas which lack medical assistance oftentimes lack access to the internet or digital solutions which are necessary for setting up telehealth services in the first place.
And that’s not all. Although we’ve stated that telehealth is a more affordable option, it still comes at some cost. Certain countries include telemedicine in their medical plans, offering reimbursement for services provided. Others still don’t offer comprehensive reimbursement policies, which is among the biggest obstacles to making telehealth technologies an integral part of the delivery of healthcare services. The fact is - whether or not you will be reimbursed depends on your state of residence and your healthcare plan.
For telehealth to become a norm and a part of our standard care, it is imperative to continue investing in further technological and telecommunication developments. With every new solution that hits the market, the advantages will become more evident and patients, employers, insurance companies, and health care providers will seize the opportunity to benefit from telecare.