Telemedicine, delivering health services through telecommunications networks, is finally approaching maturity.
The rise of mobile devices, high speed broadband, and electronic medical records platforms are enabling millions of patients that might otherwise require hospitalization or outpatient treatment to receive screening, monitoring, care, and education through online portals, videoconferencing technologies, mobile apps, and wearables.
In addition to patient care, ancillary, non-clinical healthcare activities like continuing medical education, professional meetings and conferences, supervisory roles, and health data management are also slowly but surely undergoing virtualization and moving online.
“There are many different areas where talking with someone and looking at someone virtually can be important for communication, getting information, screening, and reassurance.”
Providence St. Joseph Health, a non-profit healthcare system operating 51 hospitals in six states, reported they completed 100,000 virtual visits in 2019, up from 41,000 in 2018. “Years ago we set annual goals for growth and we’re beating it every year because it’s growing so fast,” said Todd Czartoski, chief medical technology officer at Providence.
“Everything in life is tied to a smart device, except health care. It is the direction we need to go. Czartoski predicts that 10% of all visits will be online in the next three to five years.
What is Telemedicine?
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describes telemedicine narrowly as remote diagnostic and monitoring services, but it is part of the broader category of ‘telehealth’ that includes preventive care, online health education, healthcare administration and management, and provider outreach.
Other authorities, including the World Health Organization, use telemedicine to refer to all remote health activities. Other terms sometimes used include ‘robotic medicine’ and ‘virtual medicine.’
The range of conditions that are well suited to treatment via telemedicine is long and constantly growing. Heart arrhythmias can be spotted by electrocardiographs in smartwatches, psychiatric care over voice and videoconferencing is now available from a number of services, low-income patients are receiving diabetic retinopathy screening through teleophthalmology, and chronic diseases such as diabetes, COPD, and asthma can be monitored just as effectively remotely as by in-patient diagnostics.
“The same tools that enable Google and Facebook to offer finely-targeted advertising products are being employed to deliver healthcare information that is highly personalized.”
Technology-focused healthcare brands are moving swiftly to add telemedicine options to their services. For example, HGE Health rolled out an app and digital platform that connects lung transplant patients to their doctors. “Thanks to a daily digital interaction with their healthcare team, the mobile app provides patients peace of mind that, pre-surgery, they stand a better chance of keeping their health stable and remaining on a lung transplant waiting list,” said HGE’s CEO Michael J. Markus.
Regardless of the technology or terminology used, the growing use cases and benefits of remote healthcare, including increased access for remote areas and mobility-challenged patients, lowered costs for providers and patients, more constant patient monitoring, and higher levels of patient engagement, are spurring rapid adoption of these systems.
Here are 15 advantages of telemedicine that explain why it is growing so quickly:
- Reach patients in remote and rural areas that don’t have access to top quality medical care
- More efficiently deliver healthcare provider education, promotion, and outreach
- Provide a more comfortable and convenient environment for patients that suffer from “white coat syndrome,” agoraphobia, or anxiety disorders
- Improve access to treatment for patients with mobility, hearing, visual, or other impairments that make getting to a care center difficult
- Reduce or eliminate the travel time, cost, and hassle associated with receiving care at a medical facility — improving patient satisfaction
- Cut down on missed time at work for patients
- Improve access to high quality healthcare for low-income patients in underserved regions
- Mitigate shortages of doctors and nurses by more efficiently allocating healthcare resources
- Monitor patients between office visits, improving screening effectiveness
- Keep low-severity patients out of hospitals, reducing the burden on the healthcare system and decreasing the likelihood of spreading infections
- Granular tracking of disease outbreaks via open data repositories
- Patients are less reliant on physical health services, take an active role in their treatment, and are more engaged in the process
- Outreach can be narrowly tailored to target specific at-risk groups
- Health professionals across the country and globe can easily collaborate and share health data
- Lowered barrier to basic screening, improving population health
Who is Telemedicine Right For?
Some procedures still require inpatient or outpatient care for optimal outcomes, but for a growing class of activities, notably health monitoring, outcomes are nearly identical — while improving patient satisfaction. Plus, telemedicine eliminates onerous travel costs and requirements and cuts down on time off from work for healthcare.
Telemedicine delivered through videoconferencing technology is of particular benefit to individuals with impairments related to mobility, hearing, or vision. Modern accessibility standards ensure closed captioning is widely available. Videoconferencing also bridges the gap between rural areas and leading healthcare providers located closer to population centers.
Some forms of telemedicine have even been found to be superior to their in-person counterparts. Certain vulnerable classes of psychiatric patients, such as children, veterans with PTSD, and agoraphobics, benefit from the security of receiving treatment within their own familiar environment.
Additionally, the same tools that enable Google and Facebook to offer finely-targeted advertising products are being employed to deliver healthcare information that is highly personalized.
Remotely delivered medicine is also proving to be the perfect tool for preventing the spread of infectious pathogens, like the current novel coronavirus menacing the globe, by putting physical distance between screeners and patients. “CIOs at health systems are thinking about, ‘How do I extend my care team that’s already strained in terms of resources, and mitigating some of the risks of their exposure,’” explained Forrester Research healthcare analyst Arielle Trzcinski.
How is Telemedicine Tackling Infectious Disease Outbreaks?
With the growing threat of pandemic-level infectious diseases, like COVID-19, healthcare systems are accelerating their investment in telemedicine to reduce exposure points and slow the spread of transmissible illnesses.
“This is definitely an example of the untapped potential of telemedicine. There are many different areas where talking with someone and looking at someone virtually can be important for communication, getting information, screening, and reassurance,” argues Darryl Elmouchi, chief medical officer at Spectrum Health. “We think this is our duty as a caretaker for the community. We want to make sure that we prevent infections and we make it easy for people to dispel concerns.”
Eric Perakslis, a Duke University data scientist who led an Ebola response team in 2015, said “Telehealth can be a force multiplier that helps protect health workers and extends their reach, and should absolutely be seized upon.”
He also explains how telemedicine benefits epidemiologists in tracking and visualization outbreak data so that it can be shared with clinicians and patients fast enough to be of use to them: “Telehealth has a lot of inherent properties that are useful in infectious disease outbreaks. It can help keep people contained, map them, and meter the where and how of people going to seek medical care. It can also amplify messages and it can amplify workforces.”
Nearly universal digital transformation in the healthcare sector, mobile health monitoring technologies, and the rise of globe-spanning infectious diseases are creating a perfect storm for accelerating the adoption of telemedicine treatment options.
In the next decade, it’s likely that the option of videoconferencing with your doctor or other healthcare provider will become an industry standard, and in-person visits will be reserved for patients that have already been remotely screened.
This trend bodes well for all parties involved: patients receive better care with fewer obstacles, front line healthcare workers (and patients) reduce their risk of exposure to infectious diseases, and health systems are able to multiply the effectiveness of their existing resources.
Healthcare is notoriously slow to adopt to new technologies, given the regulatory hurdles of their industry, but with so much to gain, even they are moving quickly to take advantage of the telemedicine revolution.
Are you ready to learn more about how your health brand can expand its reach? Get in touch today.