In the coming weeks, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm the US health system, increasing the need for remote health services. As advances in communications become more available, so do options for health care: Enter, telemedicine. Telemedicine allows patients to receive medical advice anywhere, at any time, on any device.
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to challenge hospitals and health systems around the world, many are leveraging telehealth services for innovative solutions and new protocols to ensure patient safety. For example: With the help of telemedicine, provider organizations are moving virus testing and triage efforts outside hospital walls, thereby shifting initial points of care and the ways they engage the public, and lessening the risks associated with overcrowded facilities. Telehealth is also helping to reduce the spread of the virus by supporting home care for people with other medical conditions, so they can get the care they need without having to visit the hospital.
Telehealth and telemedicine increase flexibility and accessibility throughout the healthcare industry, making them instrumental in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
What is telehealth?
HealthIT.gov defines telehealth as “the utilization of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health education, public health and health administration.” Telehealth is a way to improve patient care and physician education. It extends beyond telemedicine to cover non-clinical events like appointment scheduling, physician training, and continuing medical education. Telehealth connects patients to vital health care services through videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consultations and wireless communications.
According to a 2019 report from the American Hospital Association, “76% of US hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of video and other technology.” Telehealth services are common, but still not as common as they should be. Many factors are driving progress of the global telehealth market, including an aging population, the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, limited availability of healthcare professionals around the world and improvements to the telecommunication infrastructure.
Examples of telehealth include:
- Health education services
- Remote monitoring of vital signs, ECG, blood pressure, etc.
- Remote doctor-patient consultations
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the practice of providing medical care at a distance (or “healing from a distance,” according to the World Health Organization). With the help of telecommunications, a physician in one location can connect with a patient at another location and provide the necessary support remotely. Unlike telehealth, which encompasses remote clinical and non-clinical services, telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services.
There are 3 major categories of telemedicine:
1. Interactive medicine
Physicians and patients communicating in real-time
2. Remote patient monitoring
Caregivers monitoring patients via mobile medical equipment, monitoring vitals and collecting data on things like blood pressure and blood sugar levels, etc.
3. Store and forward
Providers collecting (“storing”) a patient’s health information to send (“forward”) to another healthcare facility for processing and evaluation
Telemedicine streamlines processes, promotes direct communication with healthcare professionals, and reduces turnaround time for diagnoses, treatment options, and prescriptions for medication. If you’re on vacation, for example, and you need a prescription refilled, telemedicine can connect you and get the prescription called in. Telemedicine should NOT be used in emergency situations or anything that requires immediate, hands-on attention
Examples of telemedicine include:
- Digital transmission of medical imaging
- Remote medical diagnosis and evaluations
- Video consultations with specialists
Telemedicine is evolving, as telehealth becomes increasingly popular as an alternative to traditional clinic visits.
Industry reports value the global telemedicine market at around $21.45 billion in 2018, and expect it to reach $60.49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of 18.%.
The rising cost of health care and emerging technologies are key drivers of growth for the telemedicine market, as chronic disease continues to tax the industry, and remote monitoring becomes more accessible.
Telemedicine is a rapidly growing component of the healthcare industry in the US. Treatment for chronically ill patients constitutes nearly four-fifths of the US healthcare spending.
Integrating telemedicine services is improving patient care and quality, and reducing healthcare spending.
North America has dominated the telemedicine market with a value of $14.6 billion and is expected to remain dominant through the near future.
The telemedicine marketing in Europe is anticipated to expand considerably over the next 5 years due to an ever-increasing aging population and broadband infrastructure advances.
Benefits to telehealth/telemedicine
With telehealth services, patients and providers are able to overcome common barriers to health care, such as physical distance, limited access to reliable transportation, fragmentated care due to gaps between appointments, and lack of available health care providers. Telemedicine has been decreasing the cost of healthcare while increasing efficiency through improved management of chronic diseases, reduced travel times, shared health professional staffing, and fewer and shorter hospital stays.
Remote access to health care, as either telehealth or telemedicine:
Increases access to care
This is particularly beneficial for patients in medically underserved or rural communities. And while not developed to replace in-patient care, telemedicine can strengthen doctor-patient relationships by providing services through flexibility and convenience
Increases quality and affordability of care
Virtual care technology saves time and money, reduces patient transfers, emergency room and urgent care center visits, and delivers savings to payers. The convenience, flexibility and real-time access to care improves patient engagement and satisfaction
Reduces physician burnout
Telecommunication reduces travel time for health care providers, affording them the time needed to properly care for their patients
Makes hospitals and clinics more supportive and efficient
Telemedicine helps reduce hospital admissions and re-admissions and shortens hospital stays by allowing remote monitoring and communication. Virtual care can also help with triage, reducing overcrowding of hospitals and preventing unnecessary human exposures by identifying low-acuity patients.
“The use of telemedicine and remote care services are critical to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Patrice A. Harris, president of the American Medical Association, noted in an AMA press release announcing the launch of the Telehealth Initiative. “The AMA encourages any private payers that are not already covering telehealth services to remove those limitations now.”
On March 17, the White House's coronavirus task force announced it will be expanding Medicare coverage for virtual check-ins in an effort to simultaneously address the growing need for tests and distance between individuals.
Telemedicine technologies are helping respond to this crisis by serving two primary roles:
Remote screening for COVID-19
Virtual check-ins keep potentially infected individuals out of hospitals, urgent care facilities or doctors’ offices, which can ultimately lower the risk of transmission to other patients or healthcare staff.
Bright.md announced in a press release that it will be “offering a free COVID-19 evaluation, screening and escalation tool to all hospitals in the US.” The tool, a virtual care platform, can be added to hospitals’ websites, where it navigates patients through a medical interview, reviews “their symptoms and health history, as well as possible exposure to COVID-19.” If the platform identifies the patient as being at high risk for the virus, they’re directed to the appropriate facility and given instructions on how to manage the virus. The device is also updated frequently with new recommendations and guidelines from the CDC.
Routine care for high-risk patients
For people with compromised health, COVID-19 can be fatal. Leveraging telehealth services can help these patients avoid exposure to the virus. Sutter Health, in California, offers patients an online medical symptom checker and virtual visits as a way to provide quality care while reducing the strain on emergency rooms and urgent care centers.
- A Software Advice patient survey shows 81% “are more likely to select a medical provider who offers telemedicine services over one who does not when choosing doctors.”
- Practices are investing in telemedicine today out of a need to better equip themselves for COVID-19, but they should be looking at its long-term benefits as well, such as improving the patient experience and access to care.
- The COVID-19 pandemic might be the push lawmakers and regulators need to approve measures that would support widespread adoption of telemedicine in the future.
Speak to your local Human Resources to see what Telemedicine options might be available to you through your company. Have questions about taking your healthcare organization to the cloud? Get in touch.
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