What is Telehealth?

Lately, you have probably been hearing a lot about telehealth and telemedicine. But what exactly are these fields, and how can they help your healthcare organization?

In the simplest terms, telehealth and telemedicine are interchangeable terms and represent the electronic exchange of medical information from one site to another. According to the American Telemedicine Association, “Patient consultations via videoconferencing, transmission of still images, e‐health including patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education, consumer‐focused wireless applications and nursing call centers, among other applications, are all considered part of telemedicine and telehealth.”

Telehealth has existed since the 1960’s with one of its earliest forms being the monitoring of astronauts physiological parameters. Over the years, any number of technologies and communications tools have been utilized to transfer patient information for consultation and recommendations across nearly every medical specialty and environment. Additionally, telehealth solutions can provide remote patient monitoring, medical education for providers and consumer health communication and information. Typically, delivery mechanisms include: networked programs which link tertiary hospitals and clinics to outlying clinics and centers in rural areas, point-to-point connections to health centers, home phone-video connections, Web-based e-health service sites and home monitoring links.

For years however, adoption of and investment in telehealth services has not been high. Large-scale deployment of telehealth solutions, particularly distributed, hospital-based networks, proved too costly. But now, the available technologies and improved broadband services are more affordable and powerful, making the level of return on investment higher than ever before. Across nearly all medical specialties, telemedicine services can be used to connect providers with patients in separate locations via real-time video and audio. In other cases, services can center on using devices to remotely collect and send data to a central monitoring station for interpretation.

Today, outlying healthcare organizations often unnecessarily transfer or are forced to refer patients presenting complex cases beyond the knowledge-base of local providers. Patients frequently travel or are transferred over long distances for specialists’ consultation and direct care. These transfer and referrals can be taxing for patients, but they also present operational, clinical and financial challenges to all providers and facilities involved. Telehealth addresses many of the issues, reduce the frequency of travel and bring considerable returns and efficiencies for all involved.

With telehealth programs, hospitals, clinics and all involved providers can ensure patients get the best care possible whether that care is in their hometown or hundreds of miles away. Any of these delivery mechanisms can be used to address a growing set of challenges for healthcare in the United States. Population growth from 2008-2030 is set at 20%, reaching 363 million residents, but at the same time, forecasts predict a shortage of healthcare professionals and a lack of specialists and health facilities in rural areas. Additionally, there is an expected increase in chronic diseases, including diabetes, congestive heart failure and obstructive pulmonary disease.  Every year, 5 million patients are admitted to intensive care units accounting for at least 20% of hospitals’ operating budgets. Telehealth can reduce the impact of these challenges by connecting the right people with the right resources and expertise at the right time.

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