The development of telecommunications and web technologies over the past few decades has brought a revolutionary change in almost every industry. Healthcare industry is no exception to this change. Each day a new application of the internet is in use for better healthcare information and healthcare service delivery. IT has improved the knowledge of healthcare professionals for better decision making, similarly, it has provided different avenues to patients to access the healthcare services.
The internet has improved healthcare delivery over long distances to rural and remote areas through ‘virtual outreach’. Some of the most prominent and advanced applications of IT in healthcare include telehealth, telemedicine, telecare, telenursing and so on.
Telehealth includes a wide variety of remote health care services apart from the doctor-patient interaction such as health administration, long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health monitoring, administrative meetings, and training etc. The telehealth has a broader scope for remote healthcare services as compared to telemedicine. The telehealth services use technologies such as video conferencing, streaming media, email, internet, store and forward imaging, remote monitoring, interactive chats, electronic consults and wireless and communications.
Telemedicine, often mistakenly used in place of telehealth, is a subset of telehealth. Telemedicine uses telecommunication technology to deliver healthcare services such as diagnosis and treatment of disease over a long distance. The telemedicine is in use for the treatment of a wide variety of diseases such as Sprains & Strains, Rashes, Conjunctivitis, Bronchitis, Asthma, Skin Inflammations, Sports Injuries, Sinusitis, Allergies, Diarrhea, Colds and Flu and many more.
Apart from diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease, telehealth services are in use for emergency care, pediatric care, telestroke (stroke telemedicine), follow-up, population health management, telepsychiatry and so on.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth services are playing a crucial role in keeping the doctors and patients at safe distance from each other. Physicians, government agencies, and other health organizations are utilizing telehealth to tackle disease outbreak by maintaining social distance, saving precious time and minimizing their risk of transmission among patients and doctors. Covid-19 has boosted the use of telehealth to a much larger extent but the demand is likely to remain high even after the outbreak as a larger number of people have got familiar with telehealth, and its long term benefits.
Reasons for the rise in Telehealth Services
The application and use of telehealth services over the past few years have observed substantial improvements due to advancement of technology, demand, and convenience. With the use of Telehealth, it becomes easier for doctors to monitor and manage the patient’s disease progression. The most advanced telehealth service providers are now continuing tracking the vital stats of patients using Wearable systems/sensors. It helps in accurate patient diagnostics and reduces the chance of readmission. Some of the major reasons for the rising demand for telehealth include:
Save time and money
With telehealth services, the patient can easily contact the doctor for any medical help on a real-time basis. Similarly, online interaction has a shorter waiting time as compared to physical interaction. It saves patients time by reducing travelling and waiting times at queue lines. Patients can also consult the physician apart from regular business hours. Telehealth services are also cost-effective.
Telehealth provides unique opportunities to the patients from developing countries to get a consultation from physicians of other countries who are otherwise unable to receive it due to underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure in their respective countries. Busy lifestyle and long travelling time are the two main reasons for the rise in the demand for telehealth in urban cities.
Easy access to patient medical records
The telehealth services provide an online storage facility for patients’ records. Since most telehealth services use cloud data storage systems, patients and doctors can easily track and monitor the medical record at any time and that too from multiple locations.
Improves work-life balance for physicians
Telehealth services enhance the satisfaction level for healthcare professionals also. It reduces physicians travelling time, expands their reach in terms of patient base, provides an opportunity for enhancing medical education, fewer & shorter hospital visits, and also the opportunity to consult the specialist based on other locations. Overall it enhances the output of healthcare professionals.
There is no doubt that telehealth provides a wide range of benefits to both patients and healthcare professionals, however, there are certain technical, financial and regulatory issues that limit its growth. Some of the critical issues in Telehealth services includes:
Reimbursement is one of the serious issues pertaining to the implementation of telehealth. Most of the private insurer and Medicaid programmes do not cover telehealth services in their programmes. Similarly, some insurers cover limited services that can be billed. If the issues related to reimbursement are resolved telehealth services are expected to make a huge difference in the healthcare system.
Physician Licensing/ Practising Policies/Regulation
Different countries and states within the countries have different laws and regulations for telehealth practices. The physician needs to follow these guidelines and in some cases have to obtain a licence from every particular state (or country) in order to serve the public of that particular area, which is a hindrance to the wide use of telehealth. Apart from licencing the physician in some countries need to pay additional fees to the state or central government to get the licence.
Privacy and security
Since the telehealth uses a wide range of technologically sophisticated devices, there is always a chance for misuse and theft of data. In the US, most of the telehealth services are HIPAA compliant, but there is always some scope that patients’ protected health information might be compromised.
Financing is another obstacle in telehealthcare implementation. Telehealth requires good infrastructure and the cost to maintain the infrastructure (including technological upgrades of the network from time to time). Other financial issues such as Workforce Development, training cost to employees and patients takes a major slab of the financial budget.
Lack of personal touch, fraud & abuse, payment method, trust, tricky Policies are some of the other issues related to telehealth usage.
The benefits of telehealth are far more significant as compared to its pitfalls. Telehealth has enormous potential as it not only provides access to care for patients but also a wide range of benefits and solutions. A large number of hospitals, private tech players are showing interest in telehealth services. Some of the leading companies advancing telehealth services facilitating their use by common people include Zipnosis, Philips, Polycom, Doctor On Demand, American Well, MDLive, Sherpaa Health and others.
The telehealth is taking leaps in both urban and rural areas simultaneously. Similarly, with each passing day, telehealth is expanding into other domains in the healthcare field such as stroke care, emergency care, population health management, and so on.
In order to keep pace with the technological advancements, Governments and private insurance players are also taking interest in Telehealth services. In the coming year with technology-friendly devices with more and more affordable services, telehealth is likely to revolutionize the healthcare industry through quality and efficiency.