What is Telehealth and What Does the Future of Remote Health Care Look Like?
Senior Intelligence Analyst
January 19, 2023
Telehealth is rapidly transforming health care delivery, offering greater innovation and efficiency for both patients and health care providers alike. The use of such technology increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's a trend that doesn't appear to be slowing down now that the pandemic has largely tapered off. But what is telehealth, and why is it important for the health care industry? We explore this and more, below.
What is telehealth care?
To simply define telehealth, telehealth is a term that describes the use of telecommunications technologies to deliver health care services from a distance. While telephones and remote consultations enabled health care consultations in decades gone by, telehealth services have expanded beyond just simple, audio communications.
Telemedicine refers specifically to the remote administration of clinical services (assessment, diagnosis, treatment), while telehealth refers to a broader concept that has to do with enabling care, education, and information transfer through a variety of growing technological means, without the requirement of an in-office visit. We'll explore those technologies in a moment, but first, let’s understand why telehealth is important and what telehealth means.
Why are telehealth services important?
Telehealth adoption has been increasing over the last several years, thanks to its effectiveness in increasing engagement with elderly and rural populations, making it easier to access telehealth services. That said, the COVID-19 crisis turned the technology into a must-have, which thrust a number of developing telehealth services and solutions from the assembly lines to the front lines.
Beyond that, telehealth can be a great resource for people who are immobile or have difficulty affording transportation or lack the ability to have someone take them to a care provider, as it allows them to receive medical care remotely. This means that they can receive treatment, consultations, and other types of medical care without having to physically travel to a medical facility. This can be especially beneficial for individuals who have mobility issues or who live in rural areas where access to health care is limited.
Even with vaccines now widely available and restrictions essentially lifted, telehealth has shown staying power, with many healthcare providers continuing to provide it as an option to patients in appropriate instances. According to the CDC, around 37% of US adults made use of telemedicine in 2021.
What are some of the primary types of telehealth solutions?
A number of technologies are currently being leveraged for telehealth purposes, including mobile applications (commonly referred to as mHealth in this industry), audio and video tools, and remote patient monitoring (RPM) software.
Videoconferencing is the use of live, two-way, digital video between healthcare providers and patients for virtual visits. Videoconferencing enables increased efficiency for primary care providers and physicians and time savings for patients and, as mentioned above, helps to bring health care to patient populations that have fewer resources for seeing in-person appointments through.
However, this technology can have other benefits beyond diagnosing and treating new patients. In the United Kingdom, the British Medical Journal published research revealing that virtual visit interventions appeared to help improve exercise capacity and personal health in people with chronic disease. So there's also a case to be made for managing long-term health conditions without placing a burden on services needed by patients requiring an immediate, in-person visit.
Asynchronous Video enables the electronic delivery of patient health records and medical history from one health care provider to another, usually a specialist, outside of real-time. It is also commonly used to extend the reach of medical specialists to areas where such services are not available, particularly rural areas.
Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)
Remote patient monitoring enables the collection of patient data and medical information from remote locations, including senior living communities and private residences. This is typically done using connected devices that monitor patient vitals, as well as the software applications associated with those devices. This arrangement allows primary care providers and other health care providers to remotely access and monitor everything from blood pressure and pulse, to oxygen levels and breathing rates, reducing the need for nursing visits.
Mobile Health (mHealth)
Mobile health involves the use of devices such as smartphones and tablets in conjunction with health care software applications to monitor vital signs like blood sugar levels, water intake, activity levels, and so on. In some cases, applications can be integrated directly with individual patient records.
Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, this approach to health management can improve health outcomes and remote access to care. These devices also prove a useful means of accessing appointment booking, day-to-day health and lifestyle information, and health communications, such as text messages or emails from providers.
Who are some of the top telehealth technology companies that provide telehealth services?
As with any technology undergoing significant growth, a number of providers have been advancing the telehealth field considerably. Here are some of the top telehealth technologies currently in the market:
Teladoc: Teladoc allows patients to speak to a doctor, therapist, or other medical experts remotely over phone or videoconference, via a dedicated smartphone app.
MDLive: MDLive connects patients with board-certified doctors and licensed therapists. Over 60 million people have already benefited from easy access to appointments through MDLive.
Access Telecare: Access TeleCare was founded by physicians and partners with health care facilities around the country to offer telehealth in any clinical specialty.
American Well: American Well (Amwell) is a telehealth solutions provider that enables access to on-demand, remote psychiatric care.
Bright.md: Bright MD offers asynchronous telehealth, which uses intelligent software to prepare comprehensive documentation for a clinician. Patients can proceed with their day while receiving specialist medical advice at home.
CirrusMD: Cirrus MD gives patients access to a doctor in less than 60 seconds. Their successes include helping a national chain reduce their employee turnover by 45%.
Livongo: Livongo is helping patients to manage chronic health conditions like diabetes. Patients have access to monitoring equipment, including weight scales, blood pressure monitors, and blood glucose monitors, and can share readings with Certified Diabetes Educators, receiving real-time feedback.
HealthTap: Through HealthTap, patients can find and choose their own doctor from a range of specialties and profiles, before launching a remote visit.
What are some of the trends disrupting telehealth technology?
There's no doubt that telehealth will continue to grow, both in terms of market share and the kinds of telehealth technologies available. This growing field is also expanding out into new specialties, but what are the trends disrupting and driving this technology?
Lasting effects of COVID-19 crisis
Investment in and regulation of virtual care has increased massively, with venture capital investment increasing 3xasince the start of the pandemic. That said, disparities between certain groups, the insured and uninsured, for example, are such that work is still needed to bring this benefit to larger numbers of the population.
Regardless, health care organizations are still dealing with higher volumes of patients and the lingering effects of COVID-19 are putting pressure on healthcare services. As a result, thousands of patients around the world are turning to telehealth virtual visits, leading to higher utilization and promotion of the technology.
Continued patient embrace of remote health care
Prior to COVID-19, telehealth existed but was used by far fewer patients. Some barriers were as simple as patients not having access to required technology, while other factors included age, limited knowledge about the service and its viability, and believing that the quality of care offered was lower.
In certain regions, there are other factors involved. In the United Kingdom, for example, patients were already waiting an average of around two weeks to see a GP, according to one survey. Also, with the National Health Service (NHS) facing funding problems and struggling to support a growing population, many are turning to telehealth as a solution.
While telehealth usage has roughly halved since the effects of COVID-19 stabilized, the technology is still seeing far greater use than before. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, roughly 38 times as many people use telehealth services now as they did before the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Expansion of telehealth into new specialties
Telehealth is beginning to branch out into more specialties. For example, more services are offering access to licensed therapists for mental health conditions, Amwell in particular. Experts and medical professionals believe that an even wider variety of services will be available in future as the technology and adoption of said technology increases. In one case, a patient was diagnosed with a tumor remotely, highlighting the scope of this process for more complicated cases and medical care.
Increasing emphasis on mental health issues
Another impact of the pandemic was worsening overall mental health across the nation. While the situation improved throughout 2021 and 2022, there were two major peaks in anxiety and depression in 2020 which were not limited to the United States and which were largely associated with the pandemic and associated lockdowns. This has driven - and continues to drive - an emphasis on the need for remote access to psychological services, particularly for those who struggle to attend face-to-face appointments due to symptoms.
What are some of the business impacts of telehealth adoption?
Telehealth has the potential to solve, or at least reduce, many of the drawbacks of conventional care having individuals visit those like their primary care provider in person. For example, the saturation of face-to-face facilities due to a growing population and significant events - such as the pandemic - is a real problem. Some facilities struggle to meet demand, so telehealth provides an effective solution for handling lesser problems, or at least triaging patients before referring to specialists.
At the same time, to offer telehealth services can prove cost-effective to rural hospitals that struggle to balance the cost of running a physical location with the potentially limited income from a small population. Telehealth solutions do not require an expensive and fully-staffed building, meaning that providers can operate at a profit more easily.
But telehealth providers are going to have to find ways to differentiate themselves in this increasingly competitive market. Improving devices and technology, catering to the scope and specialty of clinical teams, and developing methods for managing chronic cases are all areas for telehealth providers to focus on.
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