Understand the buzz around telehealth, its future, and how it can help us now.
Telehealth seems to have exploded onto the healthcare scene. Advancements in technology and the COVID pandemic have combined to bring the possibilities of remote treatment nearer to home. And, frankly, a lot of us have questions about telehealth. What is it? Who is it for? And what will its future look like?
Your telehealth questions answered
The first thing to know about telehealth is that it’s not as futuristic as it sounds. We’re already familiar with the underlying technology. Depending on how you look at it, telehealth itself has been around since the 1920s (ships used radios to get medical advice) or the late 1950s/early 60s (remote psychiatric consultations). So, let’s figure out what telehealth is, how it’s used, and why it’s a good thing.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth has quite a broad definition. In the US, it’s up to each state to define exactly what constitutes telehealth. A general consensus is provided by the WHO, which defines telehealth as the “delivery of health care services, where patients and providers are separated by distance. Telehealth uses ICT [Information and Communications Technology] for the exchange of information for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health professionals.”
In its broader interpretation, telehealth includes medical devices and procedures that patients use or perform at home. Thus, blood sugar testing kits, at-home blood pressure cuffs, Fitbits and other fitness wearables, portable heart monitors, and other fairly common devices are part of the telehealth ecosystem.
You may have heard the term “telemedicine” as well. In most cases, this is synonymous with telehealth. It can also be used to refer exclusively to the remote medical care (e.g. doctor visits over Zoom, remote patient monitoring) aspect of telehealth.
How is telehealth used in the healthcare industry?
Telehealth is modernizing healthcare in many ways, the first of which is increasing its accessibility. The Rural Health Information Hub states that “Telehealth allows specialists and subspecialists to visit rural patients virtually, improving access as well as making a wider range of healthcare services available to rural communities via telemedicine, including radiology, psychiatry, ophthalmology…cardiology, oncology, and obstetrics.”
Providing virtualized healthcare to remote communities is one of the best-known applications of telehealth. But the medical industry is using it in several other ways, including:
- Virtual minor urgent care. A skin rash. A sore throat. Hayfever. These common medical complaints aren’t life-threatening, but they do call for some professional attention. Virtual urgent care services allow qualified medical personnel to treat minor complaints, including providing appropriate prescriptions. (Note: Virtual urgent care should not be confused with emergency care for serious illness or injury.)
- Post-hospital and post-surgical follow-ups. Care providers use texts, phone calls, and videoconferencing to stay in contact with patients after they are discharged from the hospital. This ensures patients understand and carry out recovery/treatment plans. Telehealth platforms automate much of the communication process, including sending reminders to the patients. This can prevent misunderstandings related to healthcare instructions and result in better patient outcomes.
- Online prescription renewal. If you’ve been unable to get to your own doctor to refill a current prescription, online prescription renewal allows you to do it virtually. Physicians assess each case and ensure there are no new symptoms related to the condition, then call a prescription into the pharmacy of your choice.
Remote patient monitoring – using sensors that track movement, wearable devices that monitor key health metrics, and videoconferencing to talk with the patient – is one of the most promising applications of telemedicine. It has been associated with better patient outcomes, reducing ER visits and hospital readmissions, promoting better patient care, improving compliance with medical guidance, and ensuring better communication between care providers themselves.
Remote patient monitoring is also becoming an important way to provide home care to people who need ongoing assistance. It allows family, non-medical caregivers, and the medical team to keep in contact, respond promptly (i.e. when a fall triggers a wearable device to send help), and better manage the patient’s care routine.
Who benefits from telehealth?
Basically, everyone involved benefits from telehealth solutions: patients, caregivers, and medical administration/staff.
Patients. Few people enjoy going to the doctor’s office: waits are long, appointments often conflict with work or other activities, and travel time can be a pain. Whether it’s a case of white-coat syndrome (anxiety-induced high blood pressure) or simple inconvenience, people often put off getting care. And this can take a toll on their health.
Telehealth services, on the other hand, eliminate all of the travel and much of the anxiety around getting medical care. Virtual visits are more convenient, more comfortable, and may even be more affordable. Barriers to care are removed or lowered, and patients are more likely to report better quality of care.
Another way patients benefit from telehealth is access to a wider group of medical practitioners and specialists. Geographic limitations can be easily overcome via virtual appointments.
Caregivers (healthcare providers and care teams). There’s a shortage of medical providers; as the population grows and ages, this shortage will become more critical. Telemedicine allows providers to adopt a more flexible work schedule and interact with more people in less time. It eliminates a lot of the geographic limitations that physicians face, giving them access to a wider audience. It can reduce practice overheards, and there’s some evidence linking telehealth to greater provider satisfaction.
Medical office staff and administrators also benefit from telehealth. The platforms centralize information storage, making it easier to manage and share medical records. Also, telemedicine can act as an alternative revenue source, supplementing what in-person visits provide. There may also be fewer complaints around wait times.
Is telehealth secure and HIPAA compliant?
Much of telehealth’s actual security depends on the physician or administrator’s choice of telehealth platform and communication method. The telehealth industry is evolving, and so are its security and privacy laws.
Of course, telehealth platforms and solutions are required to have security measures. For example, the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology lays down these requirements:
“Medical professionals who wish to comply with the HIPAA guidelines on telemedicine must adhere to rigorous standards for such communications to be deemed compliant.
A medical professional or a healthcare organization creating ePHI [electronic protected health information] that is stored by a third party is required to have a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with the party storing the data. The BAA must include methods used by the third party to ensure the protection of the data and provisions for regular auditing of the data’s security.”
- “Only authorized users should have access to ePHI.
- A system of secure communication should be implemented to protect the integrity of ePHI.
- A system of monitoring communications containing ePHI should be implemented to prevent accidental or malicious breaches.”
The same source states that physicians are encouraged to use secure messaging instead of relying on emails, text messages, etc. And while videoconferencing services like Zoom and Skype are permissible, open communication sources like Facebook Live and Twitch are not.
Does it improve patient engagement?
Telehealth services, while gaining traction, are still in the growth phase. Not everyone has had the chance to use it. But as the following stats show, there seems to be a generally positive response:
- 77% want access to telehealth.
- Interestingly, for Cleveland Clinic patients who have used telehealth services, this number rises to 98%.
- 50% would be willing to switch from in-office visits to virtual visits.
- 75% were satisfied with their virtual care experience.
And, as we’ve already discussed, remote monitoring is associated with a number of patient engagement improvements, including taking medication as directed and sticking with at-home care recommendations. So yes, there is a link between patient engagement and telehealth services.
A key driver in patient engagement with telehealth appears to be its convenience: no more long drives and long waits for a 15-minute consultation with a specialist. Telemedicine also improves care and access, as already discussed; this naturally causes engagement to increase.
However, there are also some drawbacks that need to be addressed. For example, older populations may struggle with telehealth technology. Overcoming this barrier depends on good service design, i.e. building apps, online portals, websites and even devices so they are easy to use. A well-considered digital product can reduce the frustration and resulting lack of engagement that some people experience when first using telemedicine.
How telehealth can help during the COVID-19 pandemic?
By offering information anywhere and anytime, telehealth programs have been very important to combating the COVID-19 crisis. There are two main ways that telehealth solutions have been used during the pandemic:
Virtual urgent care. Googling symptoms has been around for nearly as long as Google. Thus, a natural use for telehealth systems has been to provide care and triage virtually. We’ve seen this with COVID-19; online symptom checkers and virtual triage and monitoring services have helped medical facilities cope with floods of inquiries and provide accurate information to a worried populace.
Virtual visits. Doctors and patients are becoming increasingly comfortable replacing in-office visits with remote videoconferencing appointments. These work much like traditional appointments; there are even devices that allow physicians to assess lung and heart function and perform several kinds of diagnostics. In the US, virtual visits are becoming more viable, thanks to changes in reimbursement policies and relaxed regulations around telehealth technologies (i.e. the use of video platforms like Skype).
Such measures offer a critical safeguard against the person-to-person spread of COVID-19, allowing health workers to stay that much safer. And, as previously discussed, they ease some of the workload from an already strained system.
What is the future of the telehealth industry?
Telehealth’s future looks very bright, and it’s not driven solely by COVID. In May 2019, the AMA reported that telehealth growth was up 53% – the most of any medical sector. In June 2020, private insurance telehealth claims rose a staggering 4,000%. Now that people have had a taste of telehealth, they’re quite willing to continue using this convenient care option.
We can also expect to see continued growth and improvements around devices, communication pathways, telemedicine services, and telehealth platforms. Look for them to become increasingly intuitive and user-friendly. As this happens, we can expect to see a related increase in users. After all, good design is a sure-fire way to improve engagement.
We’ll also see insurance companies and legislatures come to grips with telehealth. In the US, most major insurances cover some form of telehealth service, and all 50 states have regulations on the books regarding telemedicine. Expect the delineation and regulation to get progressively more detailed in the coming months and years.
So, what does this mean for you? Whether you’re a patient, a healthcare provider, an insurer, or anyone else, stay tuned to telehealth trends. We can expect to see digital pharmacies, virtual appointments, online triage tools, and remote monitoring gain in popularity. It may well become the new normal in healthcare.
As Director of Strategy and Insight at Star, Christopher works primarily with the HealthTech Practice team to define human-centered digital strategies designed to improve engagement and deliver better health outcomes. In addition to his healthcare design experience, he has also successfully brought to market consumer electronics, automotive and heavy industry products and solutions. Before joining Star, Christopher held numerous senior roles in strategic design consulting, internal corporate design and innovation groups.