What is Telemedicine? [The Full Guide]

July 9, 2018

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What is Telemedicine? [The Full Guide]

Have you heard of telemedicine before? If not, you’re not alone. While you might not have heard of the term before, you are likely to be familiar with the definition. Essentially, telemedicine allows healthcare professionals to evaluate, diagnose and then treat patients at a distance by using telecommunication technology.

The concept of telemedicine could very well still be new to physicians and providers due to the significantly slow adoption rate of technology in the healthcare industry. However, continuous advancements in technology and healthcare innovation have tremendously expanded its usability. Furthermore, the demand from the new generation of tech-savvy youth has pushed for its rapid adoption due to the intelligent features, cost saving, and convenience that it brings.

It’s now just a matter of time before all medical groups, healthcare providers, healthcare systems, and solo practitioners begin to integrate telemedicine into their medical service offerings. Here’s your full guide to everything there is to know about telemedicine.

Definition of Telemedicine

Very simply put, telemedicine is defined as “the remote delivery of healthcare services.” It’s a tool that makes healthcare more cost-effective, accessible, and increases patient engagement. Since first emerging in the 1950s, advancements in telemedicine have contributed to seniors being able to age in their place of choice; rather than having to go directly to medical facilities, they can receive medical care remotely from the comfort of their own home. Also, those patients that reside in rural areas which previously had difficulty accessing a doctor can now reach them virtually.

Patients and physicians can share information in real time from one computer screen to another. They can even get readings from medical devices that are located far away. By making use of telemedicine software, a patient can see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment without needing to wait for an appointment. The patient can simply consult with the doctor from their own home.

Generally, Telemedicine is classified into three main categories. These include remote patient monitoring, store-and-forward, and interactive telemedicine.

  • Remote patient monitoring: Also commonly known as telemonitoring, this is a process that allows patients with chronic conditions to be monitored in the comfort of their home by means of mobile medical devices that collect data about blood pressure, blood sugar levels, or other vital signs. Remote caregivers are able to review the data instantly.
  • Store-and-forward: Also referred to as asynchronous telemedicine, this system allows providers to share patient information, like lab results, with a doctor at another location.
  • Interactive telemedicine: This process allows patients and physicians to communicate in real time. These sessions can be conducted in the home of the patient or nearby medical facilities and include the use of video conferencing software or telephone conversations which must comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act regulations.

The history of Telemedicine

Telemedicine as we know it today was first established in the 1950s when a few university medical centers and hospital systems began trying to find ways to share images and information via telephone. Of course, technology has come a long way since then. But, one of the first success stories was that of two health centers in Pennsylvania who were able to transmit radiologic images via the phone. A few years later, Canadian radiologists expanded on that application of Telemedicine and created at teleradiology system to use in and around Montreal.

Telemedicine was first used to connect doctors working with patients in one location to specialists located elsewhere. This was especially beneficial to rural or hard to reach populations where specialists weren’t readily available. It was also used early on in military situations during the civil war for things such as ordering medical supplies or delivering medical consultations. Over the next several decades, the equipment that was necessary to conduct remote visits remained complex and expensive. Thus, this approach, while growing, was limited.

The rise of the internet age resulted in profound changes in the practice of Telemedicine. The invention of smart devices that are capable of high-quality video transmission brought the possibility of delivering remote healthcare to workplaces, patients in their homes, or assisted living facilities. This is an alternative to in-person visits for primary and speciality care.

How is Telemedicine set up?

It can be a fairly simple or complex process for a provider to implement telemedicine in the practice. Most clinics and solo practitioners would just require a basic HIPAA-compliant video conference software to begin delivering telemedicine consultations.

For those providers who are looking for a more complete virtual clinic solution, they would need to think about their existing workflow and incorporate telemedicine software solution into their practice. This software typically needs to have a waiting room, EHR, and a payment function.

Large hospitals and medical groups usually require custom telehealth solutions to fit into their existing workflow to reduce the disruption of adopting telemedicine because it’s harder to train large groups of physicians to change their behavior.

Advantages and disadvantages of telemedicine

Advantages for patients

  • Convenience: There’s no need for patients to take time off work or drive for miles to a medical facility. There’s the convenience of having a doctors consultation from your home and with no extra costs, such as gas.
  • Increased access: Patients who reside in rural areas can get specialty services more easily. Also, patients who reside in under-served areas have increased access to dental, primary, and mental healthcare.
  • Better quality patient care: Telemedicine has made it easier for providers to follow-up with patients to make sure everything is going well. Whether it’s remote patient monitoring systems or video chats to answer questions about medication after hospital discharge, telemedicine results in better care outcomes.

Advantages for providers

  • Reduced cancellation or no-shows: Because it’s so convenient for patients, it reduces the number of cancellations or no-shows. Prior to or at the appointment time, providers can remind patients of the appointment.
  • Encourage healthy lifestyle choices: Allows providers to encourage healthy lifestyle choices by their patients, like smoking cessation.

Disadvantages

  • Technical training and equipment: Providers will need to be trained on how to use specific telemedicine equipment. Also, there are the associated costs of equipment, such as encounter management software and integrated telemedicine carts to consider. Start-up costs may be especially problematic for rural facilities.
  • Inability to prescribe medications: Generally most states don’t allow for online prescribing without an established relationship between patient and doctor. A physical evaluation or examination may be required before the doctor can write a prescription for the patient. There are, however, inconsistencies in state laws as to what constitutes as a physical exam.
  • Licensing issues: Some states may require providers who practice telemedicine across state borders to have a valid license in the state that the patient is located.
  • Reduction of in-person interactions with doctors: Some critics feel that online interactions are impersonal, and often physical exams are necessary to make a full diagnosis.

The difference between Telemedicine and Telehealth

Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between the two. With the interrelated fields of health IT, mobile health, digital health, and telemedicine, all changing continuously with new developments, it can be difficult to pin down a definition for each term.

Telehealth and telemedicine encompass very similar services which is why they’re often used as interchangeable terms. These services include medical education, patient consultation via video conferencing, transmission of image medical reports, e-health patient monitoring, and many more.

However, on a more technical level, telemedicine is essentially a subset of telehealth. While telehealth is a broad term that includes all health services that use telecommunications technology, telemedicine, on the other hand, refers specifically to clinical services. Telehealth involves more general health services like public health services, but telemedicine is a specific type of telehealth that involves a clinician giving some kind of medical service.

Here are a few examples of telehealth in comparison to telemedicine. Telehealth could be a public health app that alerts the public of a disease outbreak or a video-conferencing platform for medical education. Telemedicine could be a mobile app that lets doctors treat their patients remotely via video-chat or a software solution that allows primary care providers to send patient photos of a mole or rash to a dermatologist at another location for quick diagnosis.

Which medical specialties can use telemedicine

While telemedicine has been the most beneficial to the primary care arena, there are various other medical specialties that it also benefits. Here are a few ways that telemedicine solutions are used to benefit multiple medical specialities.

Radiology

Radiologists specialize in using medical imaging techniques to diagnose and treat disease. Day-to-day activities responsibilities involve working with other healthcare professionals, which is often very time-consuming. Telemedicine enables radiologists to receive high-quality images and give feedback wherever they are. They don’t have to be in the same area as the provider who is sending over the images, and this allows for a more streamlined approach.

Dermatology

Telemedicine has enabled patients to connect with their dermatologist by use of a computer, laptop, or smartphone. By use of high-definition images and videos, dermatologists can examine patients suffering from bedsores, eczema, psoriasis, and more. By using telemedicine solutions, dermatologists are able to diagnose and treat skin conditions efficiently and effectively.

Mental Health

A very popular speciality for telemedicine, mental health practices can streamline patient flow, increase revenue, and give counselling sessions from anywhere. Telemedicine has allowed patients from rural areas to access web and mobile apps to speak to their therapists. Also, cancellations and no-shows are less likely.

Pediatric

Parents are now able to avoid having to take their sick children out of the house to see a doctor, thanks to the telemedicine solution. Pediatricians can use HIPAA Messenger to share images and texts securely, to make a diagnosis and treatment plan. Pediatricians can also educate parents regarding the next steps – just as they would at the clinic.

Final thoughts on telemedicine

As a savvy medical professional, you would have probably heard the term telemedicine before. But, if you’re not in the medical profession, it’s highly likely that you’ve never heard this term before. Either way, telemedicine is something that has really revolutionized the medical world as we know it.

As with anything in the medical industry, there are, of course, both advantages and disadvantages associated with telemedicine. However, I’m sure that most will agree that it’s an inherently positive thing. Whatever your thoughts, there is no denying that telemedicine is the future of medical services.

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