A Broad Definition of Telehealth and How It Will Change Healthcare As We Know It

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A broader definition of telehealth is becoming popular and includes a wide variety of things that might not fit into most people’s perception of telehealth.  While the technical definition of telehealth is any health service done over “telecommunication technologies,” many people consider telehealth to be some sort of health service provided over live video. Many picture Skype or Facetime with their doctor, but telehealth can be so much more.

The more comprehensive definition of telehealth services are changing healthcare.  Video is one service, but even video can be live video or asynchronous video with a medical provider or some other non-medical provider (dentist, counselor, care manager, etc). At another level simple image sharing with your healthcare provider is telehealth. We see this happening a lot in image heavy specialties like dermatology and plastics.  Health messages sent by text, email, or even phone calls would also technically fall under telehealth.  Remote patient monitoring via medical device is also part of this broader definition.

At the core of all telehealth technologies is one simple principle: connecting patient and healthcare provider.

Turns out that this simple principle has powerful implications for the future of healthcare as we know it. These technologies are creating a new level of expectation from patients and new opportunities for providers. Here are just a few simple examples:

Early Intervention - The physical office visit acts as a barrier to many patients accessing the care they need. The list of reasons an office visit doesn’t happen are long including: no ride to the clinic, can’t afford the visit, total time spent on a visit (including travel time), fear of doctors’ offices, unsatisfying patient experience, waiting rooms, fear of germs, pains of bringing children to a visit, etc. Most of these issues can be literally solved by a telehealth visit.

Some like to argue that having our doctors available everywhere at the tap of a button will increase the costs of healthcare as the number of “office visits” skyrockets.  While it’s true that the number of visits will increase, early access to medical care should also diagnosis issues earlier and prevent later complications that more than offset the cost of these new office visits.  Expand that to the broader definition of telehealth and the early intervention is even more likely.

Ongoing Care - Our current model of health care is really episodic. It waits for a complaint or an annual checkup (which most don’t do) to kick off an intervention. Telehealth will change the paradigm from episodic care to on-going care.

Remember that the core of telehealth is a communication channel between patient and provider. As these channels mature, the flow of data being communicated between patient and provider is going to become continuous.  In some cases it already is continuous with medical device monitors. Add in personal health data and a desire for regular health counseling and it’s not hard to see ongoing care being at the core of what telehealth enables.

Postoperative Follow-Up - It’s long been known that follow-up for postoperative care for some surgeries is as safe using telehealth as an in person visit. As technology improves and studies continue, we’re certain to find more areas where a follow-up visit with your doctor is just as effective using telehealth as an in person visit.

There are going to be some exceptions, but the existence of exceptions shouldn’t deter us from benefiting patients who clearly appreciate avoiding the cost and time associated with traveling to an in-person visit. It won’t surprise me if we eventually do more follow-up visits through telehealth than we do in person.

Perfect Is the Enemy of Better

Theoretical opponents of telehealth services will often point out the ways that telehealth services can fail or even cause harm to a patient. No doubt there are challenges with telehealth services and there are certain healthcare services which shouldn’t take place using telehealth.  However, we need to be careful that we don’t throw out all telehealth services because said telehealth service is not perfect. Remember that telehealth services don’t have to perfect, they only have to be as good or better than the status quo.

Whether by phone, text, email, or video, a virtual cornucopia of telehealth services are hitting the market. Some of these services will be so good that they will become the standard of care and it will be malpractice if you choose not to use them. Other telehealth options will provide the same level of care as an office visit, but the new consumer oriented patient will require their doctors offer such a service. Regardless of the force that pushes telehealth services, it’s going to change healthcare as we know it today.

About the Author

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John Lynn is the founder of HealthcareScene.com and a HIMSS Ambassador.