The Benefits of Telehealth
Sometimes a simple visit to your doctor’s office can be more complicated than expected. Typical doctor office hours are 8:00 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. However, symptoms and complications from being sick don’t adhere to business hours.
It can be a challenge for people who live in rural areas just to have access to a local medical facility. Oftentimes going to a doctor appointment necessitates time off work for long-distance travel to and from the medical office. Those with limited mobility experience similar obstacles, no matter where they live, because traveling is a time-consuming endeavor.
With the help of technology, telehealth is making healthcare more accessible by bringing medical services to the patient.
What is Telehealth?
The Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) defines telehealth as, “The use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”
One of the most commonly used forms of telehealth is a Nurse Hotline. Most U.S. health insurance companies offer a toll-free nurse advice hotline to their customers. Other types of telehealth services include:
- Virtual Appointments – Patients can visit a doctor or nurse via online videoconferencing or using a web-based question and answer portal.
- Medical Staff Consults – Telehealth isn’t only for patient/doctor communications. Doctors, nurses, and specialists use virtual consultations to coordinate care for their patients.
- Remote Health Monitoring – Communication between patient medical devices and doctors. Patients can use home monitoring equipment, wearable devices, and/or apps to wirelessly communicate various health readings to their doctor or medical care team.
- Non-Clinical Services – Telehealth also refers to remote, non-clinical uses such as, administrative meetings and provider training and education.
Removing Barriers to Healthcare
Telehealth not only makes access to healthcare easier for the general public, it has also proven to be a necessity for both large organizations and niche markets.
Members of the United States military, and their families, are stationed all over the world. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Health System (MHS) provides healthcare to more than 9.4 million people through a network of 56 hospitals, 365 clinics, and other facilities worldwide. Telehealth programs connect military patients to providers across the world to provide direct access to quality healthcare, tele-radiology, and tele-pharmacy services.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is heavily involved with providing telehealth services to rural communities and administers telecommunications telehealth grants through two major programs: the DLT Program and the Community Connect Program. Similarly, the United States’ Indian Health Service uses telehealth to assist with accessing health services for American Indian and Alaska Natives populations who live in outlying communities.
Other isolated, niche markets use technology to improve healthcare. Alaska’s Maritime Industry uses a telehealth platform to enhance access to care for those who work in the dangerous waters off Alaska. Internet connections are unreliable so they primarily use a phone-based system to instantly connect with doctors. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) uses telehealth to expand their internal healthcare program by consulting with external healthcare providers via collaborative practice agreements.
Telehealth and Medical Call Centers
Regardless of where people are located, telehealth is a critical tool that brings the best possible care to patients. Medical call centers play a significant role by providing the technology and medical expertise needed to bring remote healthcare to patients.
Technology enables medical call centers to effectively become an extension of a hospital or medical center’s operations. The communication software used by medical call centers can securely access a patient’s electronic medical record (EMR), update EMRs with notes, and record calls that need to be used for insurance claims and workmen’s compensation. Because everything is documented, detailed reports can be generated for reporting purposes.
Medical call center operators can coordinate care, make follow-up calls, schedule visits, contact on-call medical staff, and manage referrals. Some healthcare call centers are staffed by licensed medical professionals who are qualified to make health assessments, give medical advice, and escalate critical concerns.
The services provided by medical call centers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Medical operators can work different hours and be located anywhere in the world, in any time zone. For example, if a medical center on the east coast of the United States is closed, operators on the west coast are still available.
Telehealth Benefits Hospitals
In the 2017 American College of Healthcare Executives' (ACHE) annual survey, hospital CEOs ranked their ten biggest challenges for the year. Six of the ten concerns listed can be improved with the use of telehealth services. Specifically, financial challenges (1st), personnel shortages (3rd), quality of care (4th), patient satisfaction (5th), access to care (7th), and population health management (9th).
Multiple small and large-scale studies cite the use of telehealth as a cost-effective method to deliver quality care, improve outcomes, enhance the patient experience, and expand access to healthcare. The patient’s experience with their healthcare team plays a critical role in their satisfaction. Patients are asked to provide information about their care experience via the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey. Unacceptable survey results can result in hospitals losing some reimbursements. In 2017 alone, approximately $1.7 billion in reimbursements were withheld from hospitals.
The cost savings are also passed along to patients. Call center data from Health Navigator cites the top five reasons for calling a nurse hotline are fever, vomiting, stomach pain, cough, and head pain; and less than 10 percent of the cases were high risk. On average, telehealth appointments for nonemergency reasons cost approximately $45, as opposed to $100 for an in-person visit at a doctor’s office or $160 at an urgent care clinic.
The Future of Telehealth
The population growth for the United States alone, from 2008-2030, is estimated at 20%, or 363 million people. This spike in population will exacerbate an already strained shortage of healthcare professionals. Telehealth services may become more of a healthcare necessity rather than a convenience.
As technology advances, telehealth has the opportunity to become more complex by not only connecting patients with expertise in real-time, but enabling computer assisted medical procedures to be done in remote locations by specialists thousands of miles away, creating global care teams for patients.