The internet has transformed modern life, from your interactions with friends and family to how you make purchases. Today, you can easily access health information and services from the comfort of your home, thanks to technologies such as telehealth. If you wonder what telehealth is, the following simple description will help arm you with the right information.
What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is the delivery of health and health-related services through digital information and communication technologies. Telehealth facilitates health-related services like patient education, medical care and health information services. Telehealth also uses various technologies, including remote patient monitoring, mobile health apps, video conferencing, and store and forward.
Telehealth is not a new terminology in the health industry, but it was not until the outbreak of COVID-19 that most people noted its benefits. During the pandemic, most hospitals were packed to the gills; therefore, healthcare providers needed an alternative to maintaining the well-being of their patients. Thanks to telehealth technology services such as remote patient monitoring, people can avoid spending time in hospitals where virus transmission is high.
Telehealth and Telemedicine
Most professionals use the terms telehealth and telemedicine inconsistently, which can be confusing. Although vendors, policymakers, and advocacy groups use these terms interchangeably, there is a distinction between the two.
Telehealth encapsulates a wide range of technologies and services for the provision of patient care and to improve the whole healthcare delivery system. It refers to a broad scope of healthcare and health-related services, including non-medical services. Telehealth covers non-clinical services, including administrative meetings, provider training, and continuing medical education.
On the other hand, telemedicine explicitly involves the delivery of clinical services remotely. It consists of the use of digital devices and telecommunications systems to deliver healthcare to patients who cannot access a health facility for one reason or the other.
For example, telemedicine may benefit people whose geographical location makes it challenging to access a provider. Older adults or physically challenged individuals who don’t have the luxury of moving from one place to another may also find telemedicine helpful. For instance, a patient with a non-life-threatening medical problem may virtually get urgent care online. A radiologist may also read and interpret the imaging results in another country whose hospitals don’t offer radiology services.
Remote Patient Monitoring
Remote patient monitoring uses electronic devices such as smartphone apps, wearables, mobile devices, and internet-enabled computers to collect, record, and transmit health data to a provider for evaluation. These devices gather vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. If you have diabetes, you can upload your glucose readings to a health app for your provider or healthcare team to access.
If the levels are higher than average, your doctor may give you instructions to lower them or request an in-person visit. Older people with conditions such as dementia may have monitoring devices that detect any changes in activities such as falls.
Video Conferencing Technology
Video conferencing technology allows patients to access healthcare services such as consultations without visiting a facility. You can receive ongoing care from your primary care provider through video conferencing when an in-person visit is not necessary. People living in rural areas can have online consultations with healthcare providers, military personnel and inmates. While virtual or online appointments are convenient, specialists only recommend them for minor illnesses. An in-person visit is essential if you have a life-threatening condition such as pulmonary embolism. Other drawbacks of virtual appointments include:
- There is no guarantee that you will be seeing your regular doctor during each appointment.
- It is difficult to achieve an accurate diagnosis because a virtual visit lacks an in-person evaluation.
- The automated decision-making model may not be optimal if you have a complex medical history.
- Shared decision-making or deciding on an alternative for treatment or medication may not be possible with virtual appointments.
Telehealth is improving the quality and accessibility of health care services. Through virtual consultations and remote patient monitoring, health services are now efficient, better coordinated and closer to home. People with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure can better manage their health and improve their quality of life. Thanks to remote monitoring of vital signs, the risk of hospitalization and death from heart failure have been reduced.
Although telehealth’s benefits are numerous, this technology still runs the risk of fragmenting healthcare, resulting in inappropriate use of medications, overlapping care, and overuse of medical care.