Telehealth, also known as telemedicine, describes the use of digital communication technologies to access health-related services and information. It is commonly regarded as an alternative to traditional in-person healthcare, but many practitioners have begun using telehealth as a supplement to in-person care rather than a replacement.
As such, many healthcare customer relationship management (CRM) and electronic health record (EHR) applications have launched embedded telehealth capabilities. Examples of telehealth applications include:
The advent of telehealth
Telehealth has been a practice in the medical field since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the late 1800s. Specifically, telephones and radios have been used to deliver healthcare to remote areas for more than 100 years.
Development of more advanced telehealth equipment began in the 1980s, and the rise of high speed internet enabled more effective telehealth technologies. These include mobile phones, wearable health monitors, IoT devices, and telecommunications hardware and software.
Until 2020, telehealth was deemed a convenience for patients, but not an integral part of most providers’ care. This was in large part due to HIPAA restrictions surrounding patient privacy as well as health insurance coverage barriers.
Telehealth and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, escalated the need for telehealth services. Social distancing restrictions and overwhelming hospital capacity meant providers needed to implement telehealth solutions to be able to meet with non-critical patients without risking exposure.
Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced changes to federal policies that allowed providers to use popular video chat programs like FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype without risking HIPAA non-compliance. This change made it easier for providers to use basic telecommunications platforms until they were able to adopt more sustainable, healthcare-specific applications.
McKinsey & Company reported that “telehealth utilization has stabilized at levels 38X higher than before the pandemic” and that “telehealth adoption overall has approached up to 17 percent of all outpatient/office visit claims” since April 2020.
Telehealth advantages and disadvantages
Telehealth comes with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that it minimizes direct contact with contagious illnesses, thereby reducing the risk that those illnesses will spread. It also offers more flexibility and convenience for patients with busy schedules or those who would have to make special arrangements to travel to appointments. Plus, providers can use telehealth to see more patients in a set amount of time and optimize each appointment’s efficiency.
However, telehealth also comes with some risk. Most notable is the risk that a provider’s telehealth system might be the victim of a successful hacking attempt. If sensitive information is lost or compromised in any way, this could have serious ramifications for both the provider and patients. Providers should also consider that not all patients have access to a computer or smartphone and a reliable internet connection, which can amplify disparities among already marginalized communities. Plus, telehealth can be isolating for some patients.
Examples of telehealth
Many health-related services can be provided via telehealth, but not all. Services that are suitable for telehealth include:
- Appointments for prescription management
- Urgent care issues