Arguably the most notorious problems plaguing American healthcare in the recent decades are workforce shortage and skyrocketing costs.
A recent AAMC study estimates a shortfall of between 14,900 and 35,600 primary care physicians by 2025. At the same time, the cost of providing healthcare to a typical American family of four has tripled in the last 15 years.
Telehealth, defined as the use of the telecommunications technology to deliver clinical services and information remotely, could just be the long-awaited answer to these issues.
The Value Proposition
In the United States, telehealth and telemedicine are used interchangeably, even as telehealth hints at a broader range of activities besides medicine, such as health promotion. Both fall under the umbrella of eHealth and represent a relatively new type of digital healthcare solutions.
The routine applications of the technology span primary care, remote patient monitoring, and medical education, with the list and the penetration rate constantly growing.
Primary Care Delivery
With telehealth, primary care physicians can contact their patients remotely (e.g. via live interactive video) to diagnose conditions, recommend treatment, or refer the patient to a specialist for further checks. The process may also involve store-and-forward transmission of patient data like photos, X-rays, and EKG strips.
This type of telehealth is often delivered directly from medical practitioners to consumers via web-based solutions. Doctor on Demand, one of top telehealth providers in the U.S., charges its users $49 per visit — significantly lower than your typical brick-and-mortar consultation.
In situations when specialist services are difficult to obtain and every minute is of the essence, telehealth saves lives. An excellent example is the telestroke technology that enables an expert neurologist to examine a suspected stroke patient admitted to a rural health center.
It must be noted that in urgent care, a telehealth consultation is a temporary fix before the patient can be transported to a fully equipped ER. At the same time, a review of medical records of older patients shows that 27% of emergency department visits might have been resolved with telemedicine.
Using telehealth technology can prevent unnecessary visits and relieve the pressure on overcrowded urgent care departments. Throw in lessened risks of hospital-acquired infection and it’s easy to see how telehealth translates into improved quality of care.
Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)
RPM involves the use of wireless sensors to collect a patient’s vitals, blood glucose levels, position in space, etc., and continuous secure transmission of the data to a healthcare facility for interpretation and storage. Whenever a patient’s condition starts to deteriorate, the responsible clinician receives an intervention alert.
Health providers use the RPM option to serve a greater number of patients simultaneously. RPM also enables chronic and post-surgery patients to leave the hospital sooner and reduces readmissions by keeping them committed to post-discharge plans.
The method dramatically improves access to clinical services both in urban areas and remote communities while driving down travel-related costs.
Medical Education and Information
Compared to other fields, it takes several years longer for an aspiring doctor to get a college degree and gain sufficient hands-on experience. The sheer scope of information to memorize and skills to practice is staggering. Considering that by the year 2020, it will only take 73 days for the volume of medical knowledge to double, medical professionals are finding it harder and harder to keep up.
Telehealth technology gives physicians an opportunity to continue their education and training in the workplace through on-demand consults with other specialists (e.g. with the help of American Well’s Telemed Tablet.) This is especially useful in remote locations that don’t have the same range of specialized clinicians on deck.
The educational capabilities of telehealth are not limited to MDs. When a homebound patient needs special care, a relative or a visiting nurse can be taught to administer the necessary procedures by an experienced practitioner. Patients turn to telehealth to obtain reliable medical information about their conditions, learn to use prescription drugs correctly with video tutorials, and discuss their concerns online with peers who receive similar treatment.
The Powerful Differentiator
As any thriving business, American healthcare must pay close attention to what consumers expect to get for their money. The all-encompassing digitalization has raised the bar for convenience and efficiency in the service industry. After mastering Uber and Amazon Prime, the American consumer is finally ready for digital health tools.
Patients want increased scheduling flexibility, minimal wait times, and the ability to manage prescriptions as easily as online purchases. Telemedicine can deliver this and more, improving patient satisfaction and providing a competitive advantage for hospitals and health plans.
To sum things up, telehealth enables the person, not the provider, to be at the center of care — and that makes all the difference.
Next time, we will take a closer look at the technological makeup of successful telehealth solutions and go over the difficulties that can be expected on the way to implementation.