What is Telehealth? Definition, Services and Use Cases

Posted by: Alok Prasad

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What is Telehealth?

Telehealth, also known as Telemedicine, is the delivery of healthcare clinical and non-clinical services through remote technologies, such as telephones, video conferencing, and mobile applications. It often involves use of two-way, real-time interactive electronic communications and software. It enables patients to receive medical care from their homes or other locations outside of traditional healthcare facilities. This technology allows for virtual consultations with healthcare providers, remote monitoring of patient health, and virtual access to health information. Telehealth provides a convenient, accessible, and cost-effective alternative to in-person healthcare services, especially in areas with limited access to healthcare services.

Clinical services include: follow-up visits, management of chronic conditions, medication management, specialist consultation

Non-clinical services include: provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education.


Telehealth vs. Telemedicine: What is the difference?

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA), among many organizations and individuals, considers the words “telehealth” and “telemedicine” synonymous.  However, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services note a distinction between these two terms.

HRSA considers telehealth to have a broader scope than telemedicine.  While “telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services”, such as the transmission of radiologic images or a consultation between clinicians, "telehealth includes remote non-clinical services” such as provider training and continuing medical education, as well as “direct, electronic patient-to-provider interactions” through the use of devices “that collect and transmit health information to help monitor or manage chronic conditions”.

Awareness and adoption of both telemedicine and telehealth has been steadily increasing in recent years.  The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that more than 15 million Americans received medical care remotely that year.  This view is supported by a 2017 Virtual Visits Consumer Choice Survey conducted by the Advisory Board which showed that “up to 77% of respondents would consider seeing a provider virtually, and 19% already have.”

Types or Modalities of Providing Telemedicine Services

The Health IT Playbook describes four telehealth modes:

  1. Live video (synchronous)
    Live, 2-way interaction between a person (patient, caregiver, or provider) and a provider using audiovisual telecommunications technology.
  1. Store-and-forward (SFT)
    Transmitting videos and digital images through a secure, electronic communications system. As compared to a “real-time” visit, this service provides access to data after it’s been collected. Generally, Providers record or capture diagnostic information (like X-rays, CT scans, EEG printouts) at the patient’s care site. Then they send them to a specialist in another location using a telecommunication tool such as secure email.  Because of the time delay between the image’s transmission and when it’s interpreted, SFT is often referred to as “asynchronous.”
  1. Remote patient monitoring (RPM)
    Personal health and medical data collection from a patient in one location, which is then transmitted to a provider in a different location. RPM helps clinicians and patients manage chronic illness. It uses devices, such as Holter monitors, to transmit information, including vital statistics — like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels.
  1. Mobile health (mHealth)
    Smartphone apps designed to foster health and well-being. These apps offer a wide range of health-related help. A small sample includes apps that send targeted text messages to encourage healthy behaviors, alerts about disease outbreaks, and reminders that help patients adhere to specific care regimens. Increasingly, smartphones may use cameras, microphones, or other sensors and transducers to capture vital signs and venture into RPM.

Telehealth Services

Telehealth services can include a wide range of healthcare services, such as virtual doctor consultations, remote monitoring of vital signs, and virtual access to health information.

Virtual doctor consultations allow patients to have a video or phone call with a healthcare provider, enabling them to receive medical advice, diagnose illnesses, and receive prescriptions, without having to physically visit a doctor's office.

Remote monitoring of vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, is possible through wearable devices that can transmit data to healthcare providers in real-time. This allows for continuous monitoring of a patient's health and early detection of any potential problems.

Virtual access to health information, including electronic medical records and educational resources, empowers patients to make informed decisions about their health and to better understand their conditions.

Telehealth services also encompass mental health services, such as therapy and counseling sessions conducted through video conferencing or phone calls.

In conclusion, telehealth services are designed to provide patients with convenient and accessible healthcare services, while also improving the efficiency of the healthcare system by reducing the need for in-person visits. This makes telehealth an attractive option for people who are unable to physically visit a healthcare provider due to geographical, mobility, or health reasons.

Standalone vs. EHR Integrated Telemedicine?

While telemedicine services do not need to be integrated into an EHR, doing so leverages the patient’s clinical information already in the EHR to support and improve continuity of care.

In an integrated system, providers are able to give better quality care when they have access to a more comprehensive picture of the patient’s health and medical conditions beyond a single visit.  This may include laboratory and imaging results over a period of time as well as progress from other clinicians, among others.

Key Considerations for Practices Implementing Telehealth

  1. Research and understand the implications of adding telehealth to your practice. Even when you can’t immediately implement a full-fledged virtual visit program, some aspects of telehealth such as secure messaging and online scheduling via a patient portal may be possible and can help pave the way for more offerings in the future.
  1. Work out the logistical details with your leadership team and staff.
  1. Perform due diligence by researching and understanding federal regulations, state laws, and commercial payer reimbursement rules.
  1. Communicate the plan with your patient base and solicit their feedback. This will give you an idea of the level of interest and demand from your patients.
  1. Discuss the availability of telemedicine features with your EHR vendor.
  1. Once providers understand why telemedicine is important to the structure of their practice, they can then work on finding the perfect vendor of telemedicine software to set their practice up for success. A quality vendor is crucial to making sure a practice has the quality technology it needs to provide quality care.

The American Medical Association has an online module called Steps Forward: Adopting Telemdedicine in Practice, which walks Providers and practices through the process of evaluating and preparing to launch a telemedicine/telehealth service.

Additionally, the Telehealth Resource Center has comprehensive information for organizations and individuals who are actively providing or interested in providing health care at a distance.

Specialties Leveraging Telemedicine

According to a recent report, the top 15 physician specialties that are most engaged with telemedicine are:

1. Radiology
2. Psychiatry
3. Internal medicine
4. Neurology
5. Family medicine
6. Dermatology
7. Pediatrics
8. Emergency medicine
9. Geriatrics
10. Allergy and immunology
11. Endocrinology
12. Infectious disease
13. Urology
14. Pediatric pulmonology
15. Occupational medicine

Telemedicine Use Cases

Source: https://www.wheel.com/blog/top-10-telemedicine-specialties-treatment-areas-for-2020

Telemedicine use in family practice:

  • Wellness exam follow-up appointments that do not require an in-person exam
  • Minor urgent care visits such as cold and flu, allergies, UTIs, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Non-urgent care visits to access treatment for “lifestyle” conditions
  • Leveraging remote patient monitoring technology to streamline chronic disease management

Telehealth applications in women’s health:

  • Menopause and hormone replacement therapy management
  • Birth control prescription management and monitoring
  • Postpartum depression screenings and video consults
  • Remote lactation assistance through video consults
  • Reproductive guidance

Applications for Behavioral health:

  • Psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis via asynchronous or synchronous consultations
  • On-demand mental health counseling via video consultation
  • Medication management using mobile health applications or remote patient monitoring programs

Applications for Pediatric Telehealth

  • Acute-care video visits at schools or daycares
  • Pre-transport assessments for critical care at community hospitals
  • Remote patient monitoring of chronic conditions
  • Specialty video consults to support primary care in remote areas
  • Post-surgery follow-up appointments from the comfort of home
  • Remote medication management

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Topics: Telemedicine, Consultant, Practice Manager

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