Telehealth – Your Ticket to On-Demand Healthcare Services
Advancements in technology have the power to improve every industry, healthcare included. Digital transformation in healthcare means decision makers have to determine what technology is worth investment. As the last year has shown us, telehealth is a key trend everyone should be watching.
Telemedicine and telehealth join other technological advancements like AI-enabled medical devices and electronic health records. These advancements improve patient care and collaboration between health professionals. Innovation means streamlined work, optimized systems, fewer errors, lower costs, and perhaps most importantly, better patient outcomes.
Telehealth is a particularly compelling digital advancement, allowing patients to access healthcare on demand. Wherever they are, whenever they have the time, telehealth allows healthcare on one’s schedule. There are many ways to deliver telehealth services, and many advantages to this medical technology.
What is Telehealth?
You may hear the terms telemedicine and telehealth used in similar ways, but they are different. Understanding the definition of telehealth and associated terms will help healthcare providers and organizations better explain the benefits of these systems.
Telehealth is a broad term, referring to remote healthcare services and technologies. It is not necessarily just about services, but can also include training, meetings, education, and other non-clinical services. It can also include public health, health promotion, and surveillance.
Essentially, telehealth is a wide-sweeping definition: it’s healthcare, delivered in a manner other than face-to-face. There is an even broader term, e-health, that encompasses telehealth. E-health is the delivery of health information through electronic means, like the internet and telecommunications. That could include electronic health records, electronic patient administration systems, or digital lab systems.
Finally, there is telemedicine, a subset of both of the above definitions. Telemedicine is specifically remote clinical services, and that alone. It is the use of electronic communications and technology to provide clinical services to patients so they do not have to physically attend for care.
Why To Invest in Telehealth Services
Largely owing to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth is on the rise in the market. In the early days of the pandemic, and even still, people wanted ways to get healthcare safely. And, for healthcare providers, they wanted to deliver clinical services without unnecessary risk, making telehealth an ideal option.
According to numbers from McKinsey, telehealth usage surged in April 2020, at a rate 78 times higher than just two months prior. Even now, it has stabilized at levels 38 times higher than before the pandemic.
McKinsey indicates overall telehealth adoption is up to 17 percent of outpatient and office visit claims with evaluation and management services. Some specialties, particularly psychiatry and substance use treatment, are even higher in patient uptake levels.
Further, many patients intend to keep using telehealth long after COVID-19 ends. McKinsey found that 40 per cent of consumers believe they will continue to use telehealth going forward, up from 11 percent before COVID. And, more than half are interested in broader virtual health solutions, so there is even more potential in the future.
It’s not just about the usage of telehealth by patients, it also has to do with the investment in this technology. The same McKinsey statistics show that venture capitalists invest in digital health at a rate three times higher in 2020 than in 2017.
Venture capital investment into digital health in the first half of 2021 was $14.7 billion, says McKinsey. That’s more than all of the investment for the year prior, and twice the investment of 2019.
The time is right to move toward telehealth, knowing that patients are interested and using the system, and that investment dollars exist.
Understanding On-Demand Healthcare Services
There are many ways providers can extend on demand healthcare services to their patients. While the options are extensive and varied, there are a few popular services that most patients want.
Telemedicine is what most people think of when they consider virtual healthcare. It is the way that healthcare practitioners directly engage with their patients using telecommunication. That could be a phone call, video chat, text message, or mobile app system that combines some or all of those methods.
Telemonitoring is a way to keep track of a patient’s health without being in a clinical setting. Personal health and medical data is collected from the patient in their location, and then it’s sent to a provider via telecommunications. That could be vital signs, heart rate, ECGs, or anything else that can be monitored and transmitted.
Healthcare providers use this information to track patient data. It is helpful when caring for a patient who has gone home or to a different location, or who needs monitoring but not admission. Telehealth nursing, or telenursing, is another form of healthcare, enabling nurses to connect with patients remotely. Nurses can interact with those patients, monitor their health and conditions, and otherwise deliver care.
Telehealth physical therapy
There are also forms of telehealth that take traditionally in-person, on-site care and turn it virtual. Telehealth physical therapy is a good example of this, and is sometimes referred to as telePT. Patients and physical therapists connect for PT sessions using digital technology, watching and advising patients as they manage physical exercises in their own space.
Telepsychiatry, as we know from the McKinsey study, is very popular. It allows patients and psychiatrists to engage with one another, so practitioners can support mental health. This could be a simple consultation, a diagnosis, or ongoing psychiatric care.
How Telehealth Services are Delivered
Now that you know some of the ways healthcare on demand rolls out to patients, what about the format? All telehealth is delivered through telecommunications, of course, but there are options within that. Patient portals, virtual doctors appointments, store-and-forward methods, remote patient monitoring tech, and mHealth are all examples of how this works.
Patient portals are a common delivery method for on demand healthcare, and they are a popular choice with patients. This self-service option makes healthcare easier and more effective for patients who can handle some aspects of their care on their own. For example, with a patient portal, users can access their own test results and medical history instead of having to call a provider or a clinic.
Patient portals also allow patients to schedule appointments and communicate with their care provider. They can manage medications and request refills for prescriptions, saving the time, effort, and expense of an in-clinic visit. The patient portal gives individuals easy, centralized access to many telehealth services.
Virtual doctor’s appointments are also becoming more and more common, and can extend to any healthcare practitioner not just physicians. In this delivery model, patients do not have to visit a clinic or facility but can instead use a video messaging device, telephone, or app to connect. The appointments operate just like an in-person appointment, but are more accessible for patients who can’t or don’t want to come to an in-person setting.
Store-and-forward services are a way to asynchronously send information between patients and providers, or provider to provider. If, for example, a patient had a bone scan, store-and-forward would send the results to the patient, or from the primary practitioner to a specialist. Media can be photos, video clips, or any other kind of data, and is sent and stored securely and safely.
Remote patient monitoring, as outlined above, typically comes in the form of medical devices, many of which are wearable transmitters. The information gathered from monitoring is automatically recorded and sent to practitioners, giving real-time information as well as historical data.
Finally, there is mobile health, or mHealth, taking the form of an app on a patient’s device. This is another area where telehealth services work to empower patients. They can use mHealth to monitor and manage chronic conditions, or connect with practitioners for advice and appointments. Much of what mHealth does involves the previously mentioned delivery models, packaged together in one convenient system.
The Benefits and Challenges of Virtual Health
There are many advantages to telehealth for both patients and healthcare practitioners, as evidenced by the number of patients who have shifted to this model. Of course, as with any form of technology and transformation, there are some challenges to be aware of, too.
Patients largely benefit from telehealth because they have improved access to medical care. There are countless reasons why in-person visits can be a challenge or a burden for patients, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients might live far from medical care, have mobility issues, or feel uncomfortable attending in-person for other reasons. Telehealth services allow all of these patients to access care from the safety and comfort of their own homes or other familiar spaces.
Unfortunately, healthcare can be expensive, and this is another place where telehealth offers a benefit. Not having to travel, and not having to repeatedly visit hospitals and other facilities adds up to a lot of savings.
This approach also improves quality of care. This 2015 study shows telehealth improved hospital admissions and readmissions substantially, and greatly reduced the number of days patents are likely to spend in hospital.
It’s little surprise that, with better access to care, less cost associated with healthcare, and improved quality, patients are more satisfied. Telehealth services, being on-demand, are accessible, convenient, and flexible for patients.
There are also benefits of telehealth for doctors and other healthcare practitioners. Many practitioners, especially specialists, are finding that they can launch their own platforms and extend their patient base. Instead of being restricted to the people who can come through the door, practitioners have the option of attracting more people with more convenient models. And, when they build a patient base, it is easier to engage those patients thanks to remote monitoring and self-service options.
Just as patients find telehealth more efficient and accessible, providers will also find that a virtual health model can improve workflow and efficiency. It is easier to triage cases, prioritize care, and improve communication amongst staff, other providers, and patients. Patients are happier, which takes a lot of stress away from providers and clinic staff.
And, just as telemedicine saves money for patients, it reduces practice overhead for providers. Further, telehealth services not only reduce overhead costs per visit, it increases practice revenue. Telehealth is less time consuming, can offer a competitive advantage against other practitioners who are only doing in-office work, and reduces costly no-shows.
For practitioners who need the convenience and flexibility of staying home or working from various locations, telehealth can make this a reality. During the pandemic many clinic shut their doors or reduced hours, but providers using telemedicine were able to continue working. Going forward, this flexible model can improve work-life balance for everyone involved in medicine.
There are some challenges to telemedicine, of course, Some practitioners worry about insurance reimbursement, so it is good news that regulatory changes are becoming permanent. For example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded reimbursable telehealth codes for the 2021 physician fee schedule. There are still some uncertainties in this realm, which may pose a challenge for some.
It can also be challenging to get telehealth going, though the COVID-19 situation has pushed this method of care along. Some people are resistant to change — practitioners, insurers, administrators, and patients alike — but there is now widespread proof that telehealth can work. This also helps in dealing with those who are fearful or distrustful of technology and medicine intersecting, now that telemedicine is on the rise.
Privacy, policy, and jurisdictional issues may also come up. Everyone involved in telehealth should understand the regulations and responsibilities ascribed to them, and use a system that meets every standard for compliance.
Overall, the benefits of telehealth are clear. And, with more and more patients interested in this form of virtual health, and investors funneling funds into the tech, there’s no better time than now to get started with virtual health.