Telehealth is Changing the Face of Medicine

telehealth doctor

Telehealth — the delivery of medical services via telecommunications technology — is rapidly changing the healthcare industry. A 2013 study found an increase of 237 percent in telehealth programs over the past five years, and spending on new telehealth-related technologies grew from $4.2 billion in 2007 to $10 billion by 2012. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

As an expansion of the narrower field of telemedicine, telehealth focuses on preventive care in addition to remediating acute medical conditions. Today’s telehealth includes remote, often home-based monitoring through email, phone, the Internet, mobile apps and dedicated computer terminals using telecommunication-ready devices such as blood pressure cuffs. It also includes services provided through hospitals and other medical facilities, often entailing remote treatment or consultation by specialists.

The quickly evolving field of telehealth holds both benefits and disadvantages for patients and medical providers alike.

TELEHEALTH BENEFITS

For patients, telehealth can be a blessing that allows them to remain in their homes rather than moving to rehabilitation facilities. By taking an active role in their own care, some patients are reducing the number of medications they take, visiting emergency rooms less frequently and even lessening depressive symptoms, the National Care Planning Council reports.

In hospitals and other healthcare facilities, telehealth is opening up new treatment options. A practice referred to as “nighthawking” is making use of licensed U.S. physicians who live elsewhere in the world and can provide services such as radiology screening assessments during the overnight hours. And telehealth is saving money, especially for small hospitals that can use remote specialists such as telepharmacists who are shared by multiple hospitals.

Telehealth also is boosting productivity and efficiency for medical providers, who can quickly move from one appointment to the next, notes HealthLeadersMedia.

TELEHEALTH DISADVANTAGES

Despite the many advantages, a number of barriers exist that present challenges in widespread adoption of telehealth. Using telehealth efficiently typically requires both homes and hospitals to have reliable, fast broadband connections. In addition, since physicians must be licensed in a variety of locations with licensure granted by individual states, the situation can become complex.

Telehealth also can present challenges relating to privacy and disclosures. It’s not yet clear whether telehealth apps qualify as medical devices under Food and Drug Administration regulations, and many apps disregard privacy rules stipulated in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, reports Lexology. Experts also note that improvements are needed for handling “informed consent,” which makes patients aware of advantages and potential concerns associated with medical treatments.

IS FACE-TO-FACE CARE IN TROUBLE?

So far, traditional medical providers appear to face few threats from the rise of telehealth. In fact, some experts say telehealth may prove to be a boon to rural healthcare providers, long suffering from mushrooming costs and low patient volume.

Rural hospitals often simply stabilize patients until they can be transferred to larger hospitals. However, with the advent of telehealth, some small hospitals are finding that they can keep patients in their facilities longer — and thus, increase revenues — by making use of remote specialists.

It’s uncertain how telehealth may evolve in the future. For now, advantages like keeping patients in their own homes and out of rehab centers, lowering costs and providing a boost to rural hospitals appear to outweigh the negatives. As the nation’s medical and health-related programs train more students in delivering services via telecommunications, the popularity of telehealth will continue to grow.

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