Telehealth: The Next Frontier of Healthcare Technology
Every generation in modern history has utilized the advancement of technology to improve and expand patient access to healthcare. Advanced technology released emergency care from the restraints of ground travel and afforded physicians, surgeons and medical practitioners access to the swiftness of sky travel. Experience and knowledge once shared only within tight knit networks of healthcare providers through memos; reports and written correspondence are now just clicks away on the web.
Technology has once again asserted momentum into healthcare access, and through the undeniable benefits of telehealth millions of lives have been saved. Countless more patients can look forward to improved healthcare outcomes as the technology matures. The benefits of telehealth are multiplying exponentially as more healthcare providers implement telehealth into their routine delivery of care. This accelerated growth can be attributed to the fact that telehealth benefits not only the patient, but also the people and facilities involved in providing that care.
The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the Internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications. With the debate over telehealth’s efficacy continues, clearly defining telehealth is necessary. Telehealth is often used interchangeably with the term telemedicine. However, Telemedicine differs from the general concept of telehealth.
The American Telemedicine Association offers the following guidance on the distinction, citing that “[Telemedicine is] the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients’ health status. Closely associated with telemedicine is the term “telehealth,” which is often used to encompass a broader definition of remote healthcare that does not always involve clinical services. Videoconferencing, transmission of still images, e-health including patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education and nursing call centers are all considered part of telemedicine and telehealth.”
Consider the scenario when Mrs. Carter gets up from her couch, and stumbles to the floor with sudden paralysis. Her husband recognizes the symptoms of stroke, realizes the emergency, and knows that time is critical. He foregoes calling 911, and takes her immediately to their nearby rural hospital. The small hospital does not have a neurologist on staff, however they have telehealth technology and access to stroke neurologists and specialists at an urban hospital 70 miles away. A world-renowned neurologist is on call. He uses the video-conferencing link and web-based software to remotely assess the nature and severity of Mrs. Carter’s stroke and ‘virtually’ perform an assessment. After a careful and comprehensive review of tests and available information and a facilitated patient history and examination the neurologist recommends the patient receive a clot-busting (thrombolytic drug) that is highly effective when given in a timely manner for some stroke victims, but which can cause adverse events when given to the wrong patient. Mrs. Carter is seen and treated within 3 hours of her stroke onset thanks to the quick response of her husband and rural hospital staff. Without telehealth she may have died. Instead, she makes a full recovery.
Telehalth benefits the patient through improved healthcare outcomes as a result of timelier access to a specialist that can help deliver the highest standard of care to a patient in need. In this scenario, Mrs. Carter is not the only beneficiary in this situation. Consider the rural hospital where she received care. By retaining the patient and utilizing telehealth care the hospital retains the patient and she can remain close to home with her husband and family. Still the benefits continue. The neurologist that provides the care remotely is able to extend their clinical reach to patients who benefit from their expertise.
Telehealth care is rapidly becoming conventional for healthcare organizations across the globe. Over 2,000 telehealth studies have been conducted with many that demonstrate the value of remote healthcare. Results include reduced hospital readmissions, decreased home nursing visits, and lowered overall costs. Additionally, patients and caregivers that use telehealth technologies have reported increased satisfaction with treatments. These findings have encouraged many countries to integrate more remote healthcare into their current healthcare practices, and the use of telehealth will continue to grow in the United States as technology matures and the nature of our health care delivery evolves.