Telemedicine: What is it and how does it work?
What does telemedicine mean?
Telemedicine or telehealth is an umbrella term that encompasses various methods of delivering virtual healthcare. Traditionally, the term telemedicine can refer to synchronous two-way video visits between a healthcare professional and a patient.
But telemedicine involves more than these “e-visits”. This can include phone calls, remote monitoring of patients, or asynchronous store-and-forward messages of questions, photographs, test results, and secure applications.
Telemedicine as we know it today began 50 years ago when NASA developed telemedicine services for astronauts on long-duration missions. It became clear that this would also impact the delivery of health care on Earth.
As technology has evolved, so have telemedicine methods, which now include synchronous and asynchronous video, secure messaging on apps, remote patient monitoring, and more.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the development of telemedicine due to the need for social distancing. A 2020 systematic review found that telemedicine improved health service delivery during pandemics, reduced transmission of COVID-19, and reduced morbidity and mortality.
What can telemedicine treat?
For those personally familiar with healthcare, it can be hard to imagine the extent of telemedicine. Nevertheless, telemedicine represents a wide variety of conditions, types of visits and areas of therapy. Areas of medicine suitable for telemedicine include primary care, dermatology, dietetics, mental health, cardiology and endocrinology.
Many of these may not seem immediately achievable through telemedicine. However, thanks to advances in video technology and the creativity of doctors and patients, these and many other areas of medicine are now accessible through telehealth.
Common illnesses or symptoms treated by telehealth include:
- Skin conditions such as acne or rashes
- Musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain
- Mental health such as anxiety or depression
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation
- Chronic diseases such as diabetes
Types of visits suitable for telehealth include:
- Health visit
- Nutritional advice
- Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Physical or occupational therapy
- Certain urgent or emergency care
- Getting referrals or prescriptions
- Fertility counseling
Benefits of Telemedicine
Telehealth has many benefits in different situations and for people with different health needs.
Easy to use
Telehealth is especially beneficial for people who live in rural or isolated areas. This is why telehealth was created and extended by NASA in the 1970s to address health disparities in rural areas.
For example, someone who lives in rural Bauchi may have to take several days off and drive for hours to the nearest health facility just for a simple checkup.
Due to financial need or inconvenience, they may attend fewer medical appointments over time, and their health may suffer. By comparison, a one-hour telehealth appointment, available on their phone or computer, can lead to more health conversations and better outcomes.
In addition to location, telehealth is more accessible to people who lack mobility, which is further complicated by getting into a vehicle or going to a health appointment. It’s also more accessible for people with mental health barriers to leaving the house for dates, such as agoraphobia or conditions such as social anxiety.
Another benefit of telehealth is that it can reduce the number of hospitalizations for patients receiving telehealth services. A 2015 study of patients with a cardiovascular event found that the group participating in telehealth services had a 31% lower rate of hospitalization throughout the year.
The benefit of reduced hospitalization is particularly noteworthy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic when it has become so important to limit hospital admissions and preserve intensive care beds for COVID patients.
Telehealth is also a very cost-effective way to deliver healthcare. This is especially true for populations with various chronic conditions, who may require frequent and regular appointments.
Although there may be costs associated with setting up a telehealth service. For example, the purchase of a tablet or the development of an application, research indicates that this cost is offset by other saving factors such as:
- Increased ability to be independent
- More quality of life
- Higher capacity and working hours
- Reduction in childcare costs
- Low travel costs
Limitations of Telemedicine
While telemedicine may be more accessible to many people, including those who lack mobility or live in rural areas, it is also less accessible to some.
Telehealth requires a certain level of technical knowledge. The elderly population and people with cognitive deficits may need a caregiver to help them access telehealth services.
Telehealth also often requires a personal electronic device such as a computer or smartphone and Internet access. Socio-economic inequalities can mean that part of the population is left behind.
Telehealth also has limitations which are purely due to the nature of receiving virtual services. Some medical appointments require an in-person visit and cannot be repeated virtually. These appointments include:
- Blood test
- Physical diagnostic test
- Physical examination
- Injections, vaccinations or other injections
- Contraceptive placement
- Physical manipulation, such as physical therapy or chiropractic care
For more information on how to use telehealth to your advantage, see Dignostar Health Care Plans.