What Is Telemedicine & Can It Be as Good as Going to a Doctor?
Telemedicine certainly isn’t a new concept—it’s been around for many years. But the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated the rapid expansion of telemedicine.
Due to the social distancing and quarantine parameters set in place to lessen the impact of COVID-19, healthcare turned to telemedicine as an alternative to in-person medical visits. Health insurance, reimbursement, and licensure policies quickly adapted to allow for greater ease of using virtual medical services.
Before the pandemic, only an estimated 8% of Americans were using telemedicine. However, recent reports suggest that this number quickly skyrocketed. One study examined the telemedicine surge at a large academic health center, NYU Langone Health. With a 683% increase, telemedicine urgent care visits grew from 102 daily visits to 801 daily visits in a little over a month (March 2, 2020, to April 14, 2020). If you’re curious about how telemedicine is transforming healthcare, then this article is for you. We’ll dive into what telemedicine is, how it works, and whether it can be as good as going to the doctor.
What Is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the use of a telecommunications system (as opposed to an in-person visit) for a medical provider to deliver clinical care and services. With telemedicine, patients can share medical concerns and symptoms with their provider, get diagnosed, review treatment options, and manage prescriptions—much like they would when they go to a doctor in person.
There are three main types of telemedicine modalities:
- Live interactive services: Also referred to as synchronous telemedicine, this method allows for phone or video appointments to happen in real-time between the health care provider and patient.
- Store-and-forward: This technique is also known as asynchronous telemedicine, and is when a patient or clinician shares patient information with a specialist or other clinician (ie. a doctor shares a patient’s records and medical records with a specialist).
- Remote monitoring: This type can sometimes be referred to as patient monitoring, self-monitoring, or self-testing. This method involves the continuous monitor or evaluation of a patient’s clinical status through self-reports and reading performed by certain medical devices and apps.
Telemedicine has been around for a long time and has progressively improved and gained popularity through the years. Telemedicine originally started as a way for doctors to communicate with patients via telephone. Then, in the 1950s, several hospitals began experimenting with transmitting information and radiology images via telephone.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when the term “telemedicine” was officially coined, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And the progress didn’t stop there. Telemedicine is constantly evolving, enabling greater capabilities and advancing telecommunications systems more than we ever could have imagined.
Examples of telemedicine
While you may think of telemedicine as a virtual doctor’s visit, there’s so much more that it encompasses.
A few examples include:
- Virtual appointments, usually conducted with a phone call or video chat
- Remote patient monitoring
- Medication management
- Medical information sharing between providers
- Digital communications with providers such as email, text, or with medical apps
- Emergency patient triage
Remote patient monitoring can benefit most patients, especially those with prediabetes or diabetes. Self-monitoring can provide doctors with a better big-picture of a patient’s prediabetes symptoms and blood sugar control, leading to more consistent care and encouragement for the patient, lower costs, and improved health outcomes. Telemedicine can also make it easier for doctors to suggest lifestyle modifications, like adding an exercise routine or adopting a prediabetes diet plan.
Telemedicine vs. Telehealth
You may have heard the terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth” tossed around many times. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but a few key differences set them apart, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services using telecommunication methods. It involves any clinical services related to a patient’s care, from virtual appointments to remote patient monitoring. Basically, telemedicine is when a doctor in one location sees a patient in another location.
Telehealth, however, is a broader term that includes an array of remote non-clinical services in addition to clinical services. Telehealth encompasses services that aim to improve remote patient care, educate patients and healthcare professionals, public health initiatives, and healthcare administration.
How Is Telemedicine Transforming Healthcare?
In-person doctor’s visits are unlikely to disappear completely, but telemedicine is transforming healthcare as we know it.
A report published by the CDC shows a 50% increase in telehealth visits in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Even more so, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 compared to the same week the previous year.
The COVID-19 pandemic made virtual medical visits necessary, but that doesn’t mean telemedicine will cease once the pandemic is gone. The National Health Council examined the ways the federal government was making changes to anticipate the growing demand and access to telehealth. Certain flexibilities allowed during the pandemic became permanent to provide more opportunities and access to medical care through telehealth, especially for people living in remote, rural areas.
According to consumer and physician surveys, patient use of telehealth increased from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020, with up to 76% of patients now interested in using telehealth services. Patient use is only one-half of telehealth services, with healthcare providers making up a large part of the remainder. These surveys suggest that 57% of providers view telehealth more favorably than they did in 2019, and are reporting 50 to 175 times more telehealth visits than before the pandemic.
Here are some specific examples of how telemedicine is transforming healthcare.
Improved convenience and patient access
Convenience is one of the driving factors of many virtual services, from grocery delivery to online learning. It’s no surprise that it’s also one of the ways that telemedicine is changing healthcare.
Telemedicine allows patients to “visit” their doctors without ever leaving their homes. Most people already have a lot to juggle, from family and work schedules to personal commitments. Rather than adjusting all of their priorities to make it on time to an in-person medical visit, patients can make virtual appointments at times and locations that work for them.
Living far away from clinics, having trouble getting to a medical office, or being homebound can present challenges that get in the way of getting proper medical care. Telemedicine opens up access to patients who had limited access to medical services before.
Say goodbye to sitting in a waiting room for hours to be seen by your healthcare provider—with telemedicine, you may be able to see your physician or provider within minutes or even seconds of logging onto your telecommunications platform.
Telemedicine can also enable faster care with more immediate appointment availability, as opposed to having to wait a week or more for an in-person visit. A 2015 study comparing in-person visits with store-and-forward teledermatology found that new patient wait times dropped from 33 days for in-person visits to less than 10 days for teledermatology. The teledermatology appointments also resulted in fewer patient no-shows.
Even using telemedicine in emergency departments can open up availability and reduce waiting times in those settings, as highlighted by research findings from a 2019 study.
Another benefit of telemedicine is the role it plays in cost savings to both healthcare systems and patients—making it a win-win for both parties. Patient healthcare costs are reduced due to:
- Taking less time off of work by removing travel time
- Lower transportation costs
- Little to no need for hospital stays
- Improved management of chronic conditions
- Prevention or reversal of certain conditions, like insulin resistance and prediabetes
A 2017 study examined the time saving, travel cost, and environmental impacts of an outpatient telemedicine program. They found that, on average, each patient participating in the virtual consultations (rather than in-person) saved an average of 278 travel miles, 245 minutes spent traveling, and with a cost savings of about $156. Total environmental emissions were also significantly reduced.
Is Telemedicine HIPAA Compliant?
HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. It’s a federal law that created standards to protect sensitive patient health information. This prompted two key rules to be set in place by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): the HIPAA Privacy Rule and Security Rule. These rules were aimed at protecting the privacy and security of health information.
One of the main tenets of HIPAA is to prevent patients’ protected health information from being disclosed without their consent or knowledge by covered entities like healthcare providers or health plans. This means that healthcare providers have a responsibility to use reasonable safeguards to protect electronic protected health information (ePHI).
Certain requirements must be met to be considered HIPAA-compliant. With an increasing number of telemedicine platforms popping up every day, not all of these platforms are HIPAA-compliant and there’s more concern for protecting ePHI.
The HIPAA Security Rule has set the following guidelines concerning telemedicine:
- Limit access to ePHI for authorized users only
- Protect the integrity of ePHI by implementing a secure communication system
- Prevent breaches (either accidental, intentional, or malicious) by enacting a system of monitoring communications
These stipulations and guidelines translate to a safe and confidential experience for patients.
Recent advances in telemedicine have made it easier for patients to receive medical care in a way that promotes taking better care of their health. Telemedicine is transforming healthcare by improving patient access and convenience, providing faster care and lower wait times, and reducing costs and travel time. All in all, these positive changes can result in better patient care and improved health outcomes.
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