Advancements in internet and telecommunications technology have brought classrooms and conferences right into our homes. As cellular technology becomes more advanced, apps and increased streaming and video capabilities bring those things into our pockets, accessible from anywhere with an internet connection. But there’s something else online technology has made readily available for more people than ever before: telehealth and telemedicine.
Using services like Teledoc, patients can talk with their doctor or a specialist via video conference from their home computer or cell phone, rather than visiting an already crowded urgent care center or ER. Most of the time, without patients leaving their homes, their problems can be diagnosed, and the appropriate action can be taken by the physician, whether that’s writing a prescription or scheduling an in-person visit.
As more insurance providers decide to cover telemedicine as part of their services, many predict it will become integral to the healthcare system going forward. As Healthcare Principal Penny Osman Bahr wrote in recent legislation that finalized remote patient monitoring (RPM) as a billable service:
Remote patient monitoring will create opportunities for providers and health systems to expand access and panel size, including keeping a close eye on high risk patients. Patients will have real-time assurance, driving better engagement and adherence and overall satisfaction. There are also economic benefits of providing RPM.
Telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Here, we’ll spell out the difference between the two, tell you why each of them is so important, and let you know how you can learn even more about the health science field.
The Difference Between Telehealth and Telemedicine
What is telemedicine? Oxford defines it as, “the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology.” In 2019, NEJM Catalyst has said that means a lot more than just talking to a patient on the phone. Telemedicine relies on video conferences and data gathered from apps just as much as it does traditional phone conversations.
Telemedicine relies on RPM to provide data then utilizes what’s known as “store and forward” practices to handle that information. Pieces of data like CAT scan and MRI results or X-rays are captured and stored in a secure cloud service that a physician can access and use to treat their patient.
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Telehealth, on the other hand, encompasses not just the practice of medicine via remote technology, but every aspect of healthcare conducted via that technology. The wearable devices of patients routinely collect data on their heart rate, sleep patterns, and other vital signs. That data can be accessed by physicians via telehealth apps, smartphones, and computers and used to assess the condition of the patients.
We’ll go over some of the specific applications of telehealth and telemedicine in the next section.
The Benefits of Telemedicine
Telemedicine provides a massive benefit by allowing physicians to communicate with and diagnose patients in rural areas, improving people’s access to medical care who might not otherwise get it at all. For example, telemedicine can address the problem of physician shortage in areas that are understaffed by connecting a patient with a specialist at a larger hospital. If no specialists in a certain field live in a particular rural area, test results can be taken and transmitted to someone qualified to make a diagnosis. It may be for just that reason that, according to the American Telemedicine Association, more than half of hospitals in the U.S. have a telehealth program.
Telehealth technology can also be used to educate and train healthcare professionals. Harvard’s Safety, Quality, Informatics, and Leadership (SQIL) program is doing just that by pairing course content available on-demand with in-person instruction. Physicians can also use telehealth and telemedicine technology to complete certification requirements and study for their Board exams.
Telehealth is also making patients more engaged in their own well-being. Mobile apps and wearable technology make information on self-care readily accessible to patients. With everything from advice on good nutrition to help on how to manage chronic conditions, better knowledge of preventative care has meant better health in people who regularly integrate telehealth into their lives. According to NEJM Catalyst, women who used the pregnancy tracking app Due Date Plus reported an increased compliance with prenatal care requirements and gave birth to fewer babies who were underweight.
The Future of Telehealth and Telemedicine
As providers and patients see the value of telemedicine, its adoption is projected to increase. Mordor Intelligence has predicted the global telemedicine market is projected to be worth just over $60 million by the end of 2024, and advances in mobile and wearable technology will likely spur rapid growth in the next few years.
The University of Texas School of Biomedical Informatics has stated that telemedicine will likely go more mobile in the future. Over three-quarters of Americans own a smartphone, so it makes sense that, through apps or video conferencing, more people will opt to use their telemedicine benefits on their mobile devices.
Security will become more of a concern as more patient data gets stored in telemedicine cloud servers, with regular HIPAA checks and enhanced security measures a must. Portable devices utilizing telehealth technology will need to support encryption to better protect user data. IT systems as a whole will need to be tested for weaknesses more frequently and rigorously than before.
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