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What Is Telehealth? A 2020 Guide

By Team Altus | Published Apr 09, 2020

Telehealth is a broad term encompassing the entirety of remote and technology-driven healthcare. The electronic and telecommunications technologies and services are used to provide clinical care and education services from a distance.

Telehealth means at any time, anywhere care is available, clinicians can access consultations with medical centers of excellence, patients at home can be monitored remotely, and medical education programs are available.

Telehealth Guide 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as “The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities”.

The potential of telehealth is no matter who you are or where you are at, you can get the health care and education you need when you need it.

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is the use of electronic and telecommunications technologies to provide or support clinical care from a distance. This could be used in primary care, medical specialties, intensive care services, and emergency departments. The freedom allows you to receive care without going into your clinicians' office.

Telehealth Vs. Telemedicine

The term telemedicine specifically refers to remote clinical services.

The term telehealth refers to both clinical and non-clinical services such as continuing education of health care providers and administration meetings.

Transmission of images, patient portals, video conferencing, remote monitoring of vitals, and nursing call centers are considered part of telehealth and telemedicine. Continuing medical education and administrative meetings are considered telehealth.

How Does Telehealth Work?

The main components of telehealth are equipment and connectivity. The equipment could entail a telehealth workstation, camera and/or a device such as a cell phone or tablet. The connectivity component is high internet speed that supports adequate audio and visuals.

There are three telecommunication technologies approaches:

1. Live interactive services are where the patient visit is virtual using videoconferencing and the communication is in real-time. Some specialty services where live interactive telehealth is ideal for are dermatology, psychiatry, orthopedics, pain management, and endocrinology. Live interactive is also great for connecting friends and family when the patient is contagious, family counseling, support groups, and patient education.

2. Store and forward services are ideal when face to face patient visits are not necessary. For example, a patient may get photos taken at a local care center, those images are then electronically transferred to a clinician at a remote site and clinicians’ diagnosis when convenient.

3. Remote Patient Monitoring is when caregivers monitor at-home patients who use at-home monitoring equipment that collects data. Think blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels.

Where is Telehealth Used?

Telehealth is commonly used for clinical services, home monitoring, educational programming and administrative meetings. Telehealth can be used and accessed anywhere at any time. Clinicians more and more are finding telehealth to be the easiest way to communicate with patients and other medical professionals. Because of the remote access, telehealth can be used anywhere with a proper device and internet connection.

The Need for Telehealth

With an increasingly aging population and a worldwide clinician shortage, telehealth can help overcome healthcare access barriers. In some areas, there is a misdistribution of providers. Certain populations are economically or medically vulnerable and don't have access to quality care. In some instances, clinicians are required to travel to the patient.

Instead, telehealth can reduce time, costs, hardships and delays that come with traveling. The online accessibility removes barriers for those who are far away. For patients and clinicians who may not speak the same language, thee are telehealth programs that eliminate the language barrier.

For educational programs, telehealth can bring together people from all over the world. Clinicians can virtually meet with medical professionals in specific fields to get advice and recommendations. No longer do colleagues need to be in the same building, telehealth can host administrative meetings. Many hospitals are opting for telehealth carts, a powered mobile workstation that is equipped with a webcam.

Telehealth During a Public Health Crisis

Telehealth can play a critical role in the delivery of care when an infectious disease outbreak occurs. Telehealth capabilities provide options for remote access to care and education, keeping your hospital running and your patients and clinicians healthy. Not only does it keep sick patients at home instead of exposing themselves to other people but it also allows clinicians to care for patients who are apprehensive about coming to your facility during the pandemic. As hospitals become increasingly busy, telehealth services can help prevent care gaps.

Expanding Telehealth to Fight COVID-19

To reduce the risk of exposure during the COVID-19 health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encouraged hospitals to utilize alternatives to in-person visits. They encouraged using patient portals, interacting over the telephone and setting up telehealth virtual appointments when possible.

Because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Medicare Telehealth Expansion for Public Health Emergencies was created. It has changed telehealth requirements for patients and providers to remove barriers to more easily use these vital services during the pandemic.

Under the new set of rules, providers can use non-public-facing communication apps such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and FaceTime for telehealth appointments. They cannot use public-facing apps such as Facebook Live, Instagram Live or Slack. Telehealth is available to both established and new patients under the new Medicare telehealth expansion.

To protect patients, clinicians are encouraged to perform telehealth visits in private. If a private setting is not possible, clinicians are expected to implement HIPAA safeguards such as not using a speakerphone, lowering their voice and moving away from others as far as possible.

In this time-sensitive moment in the world, hospitals don’t have the time to set up telehealth programs and need a more lenient way to perform telehealth services. Not only are suppliers across the world coming together to quickly manufacture equipment to fight the virus, but these new rule adjustments make it easier for clinicians and patients to connect in time.

The Benefits of Telehealth

Not only does telehealth reduce barriers to healthcare access, but it increases efficiency for healthcare providers. Patients can provide self-reported vitals through telehealth. Clinicians no longer need to travel to patients reducing delays and costs.

Patient satisfaction and health outcomes are bettered. Receiving care in the comfort of their own home is becoming the new norm and want. Quality of care is improved from providers consulting with other providers and ongoing educational opportunities.

Because of the virtual accessibility service, the opportunity for increasing clinician and patient satisfaction is enhanced.

Telehealth Obstacles

Some patients may have technical difficulties when it comes to technology. They may struggle to understand how to use telehealth programs, not have adequate internet speed, or not have a device or internet altogether.

Clinicians can experience technical difficulties as well. Healthcare facilities should have back up plan in case the virtual appointment isn’t successful, such as a rescheduled appointment or talking over the phone.

There are legal aspects providers need to give attention to. Since the appointments are digital, intellectual property rights and privacy comes into concern. There are telecommunication laws and costs involved. Telehealth can be a cost-sharing service between the provider and the patient. A process for patient consent and documentation is necessary. Telehealth can become a platform for fraud and abuse, certain procedures and security need to be put into place to avoid this.

Telehealth Reimbursements

When telehealth services utilized, reimbursements are given through Medicare and Medicaid, through private payors such as Blue Cross Blue shield and state initiatives.

Conclusion

Telehealth is a tool that can be used by a wide variety of practices. It offers a means to transform health care as a whole. By providing new approaches to delivering care, telehealth can ultimately help patients around the world maintain a healthier lifestyle.

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