Telehealth – Is it hype or reality?

Telehealth -- Is it hype or reality?

Healthcare is progressing down a road toward more simplicity, affordability, and efficiency.  A commonly talked about term in the medical industry is – telehealth or telemedicine. Telehealth introduces a entirely new and modernized healthcare technique and fosters better therapy procedures while possibly maintaining work-life balance. 

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Telehealth promotes use of electronic health records, online support groups, digital communication, remote patient monitoring, online video visits or e-visits, patient engagement, medical device integration and more. The most potentially lucrative of the advantages of telehealth services is "telehealth visits". Telehealth capabilities can reduce complexities of multiple trips to the physician and eased medical care procedures has great potential, is showing signs of success and promise.  It is not only for patients either - providers can gain competitive advantages over peers by expanding their geographic coverage, streamlining care operations leading to more patient care, higher patient satisfaction, and turning on-call hours to billable hours. 

There are successes happening in terms of patient accessibility, convenience, provider to provider collaboration, and transforming from reactive patient care to proactive patient care.

What is telehealth?

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Over 90% of the medical practitioners say they have adopted "telemedicine", or telehealth, in some form to sustain in the competitive market where success is determined by such innovative, user-intuitive factors.  However - the definition of "telehealth" includes a very broad definiton of technologies -- some providers claim that they are using "telehealth" when in reality - they are using the telephone or internet access for simple online billing access.  We do not consider those examples "leading edge" telehealth, and most patients or industry people would not either.  Some industry studies also include Fitbit or other health and fitness tracking devices in their statistics for the "90%" usage statistic.  There are definitely benefits and technically that is "telehealth", but when we think of leading edge telehealth -- we think of it more in more complex patient care path activities and collaboration.

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We believe that it's currently a much lower percentage that are using video visits, remote monitoring techniques, and medical device digital integrations in significant medical patient situations.  

However - those more complex and  monitoring scenarios will increase dramatically over the next 1-5 years.  Moreover, patients are more inclined towards treatment procedures that are aligned with technological advancements and would welcome a better and more oversight "after the leave the clinic", and will begin to expect more technology involvement to adapt to their schedules and help them and their loved ones to better and healthier lives.

There is no doubt though that telehealth video visits, digital communication, and remote coordination have defined a more convenient, safe, and affordable way of communicating to the healthcare provider, and for providers to communicate with patients. 

So there is much more to come in the future from telehealth capabilities.

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Who really benefits - patient or providers? 

As the name indicates, telehealth visits include a doctor examining his patients through video i.e. both – the doctor and the patient do not need to be in the same examination room. It's more convenient for the patient, more convenient for the provider, may not require physical clinic space costs.  With the advancements in mobile devices over the last few years, telemedicine has emerged in even more anytime-anywhere possibilities and convenience.

As the small smartphones have replaced televisions and provided easier access to internet and cloud services, telemedicine has emerged as a potentially vast healthcare solution.  Apart from the operational and logistical conveniences, the telehealth services, especially the electronic video visits make more financial sense. Telemedicine have symmetrically reduced healthcare costs for patients as well as healthcare providers and doctors.

Telehealth such as remote patient monitoring, digital coordination, patient engagement, and analysis have been known to reduce the healthcare service costs to a great extent. Telehealth's electronic services have considerably contributed towards treatment cost savings for the patients, providers and the insurance companies -- time required for services.  Telemedicine also can prevent medical staff and patient time in unnecessary and non-urgent healthcare visits, phone calls, and could practically eliminate the expenses of regular checkups or follow-up visits, if the patient is on-track for recovery. 

And -- if better patient care isn't enough, physicians and clinicians can boost their revenue by attracting new patients, reducing no-shows, turning on-call hours into billable hours, and reduce overhead expenses for the healthcare providers who prefer flexible working hours for some part of the week.

Patients and Providers: Convenience and Accessibility

The patient's modernized lifestyle has resulted in higher patient expectations for healthcare providers.  A Cisco global experience survey stated that almost 70% of the patients are comfortable communicating with physicians and providers via texting, email, and/or video instead of seeing providers in person.  

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Patients are occupied in their over-hectic life schedules and although the illness demands a potential visit to the doctor, they are challenged to find a convenient time, or make the time to travel significant distances to meet physicians at a clinic. 
 
Therefore, a potentially better, time saving and cost-effective solution is – telehealth visits. Some patients have a physical disability, may be too old to travel alone, or live in remote locations and do not have access to a specialist or even routine care options.  For them, video visits, remote monitoring, online patient management systems, and smartphone capabilities give them a new healthcare paradigm and accessability that they have not had before.

Studies show that there are merely 43 specialists for every 100,000 rural patients in the United States. With these lower numbers, care access is challenging.  These patients typically have to wait in long queues and have to travel long distances to visit the specialist.

However, it's not just challenging for patients -- it is challenging for physicians and healthcare providers throughout the patient's continuum of care.  Physicians that need to coordinate and communicate with the primary care physician, surgeons, or specialists have significant challenges.  The collaboration and coordination among care specialists in other remote locations - make costs and efforts higher, and in many cases duplicate tests or information may be requested, and some collaboration may not be performed at all or in a timely manner because duplication or ineffective collaboration is more cost effective than current collaboration methods(which are wasteful and archaic).

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Telehealth and automated patient management capabilities offer an optimum solution by making specialist appointments easier, affordable, and closer regardless of the patient or physician's location.  Automated patient management and monitoring capabilities allow a doctor to "see and monitor" a patient without much additional costs, and has significant benefits for the patient.  This works well for providers who wish to expand their patient population and aim to reach wider geographical areas, and also perform effective coordinated care with other specialists for a challenging patient case.

Summary

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Healthcare is on a road to lower costs, simplicity, affordability, cost and pricing transparency, patient visibility, and operational efficiency and telehealth capabilities will be one of the components along that path.

Telehealth can be a broad definition especially when reviewing some statistics.  While technically the statistics are accurate, telehealth for remote monitoring and video visits on a routine basis for complicated patient care paths is in its early adoption.  At first glance, it seems that telehealth revolves around patient-convenience -- no waiting room chaos leads to a smooth way of getting treated at the convenience of the patients.

However, research also shows that patients engaged in telemedicine have fewer hospital re-admissions and score low on anxiety, depression, and stress. 

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There are many possibilities and advantages for telehealth via video visits and automated patient management.  Better care and more convenient care for patients.  More care operational efficiencies and more time to care for patients via automation capabilities.  More revenues for physicians through broader geographic coverage, and easier collaboration.  More patients through higher patient satisfaction, and more referrals.

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References:

https://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type=webcontent&articleId=1148539

https://www.ruralhealthweb.org/about-nrha/about-rural-health-care

http://www.ajmc.com/journals/issue/2015/2015-vol21-n2/leveraging-remote-behavioral-health-interventions-to-improve-medical-outcomes-and-reduce-costs