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From fitness trackers to virtual patient clinic visits, telehealth services run the gamut. Telehealth offers exciting new opportunities for advancing the future of healthcare. Not only can telehealth improve healthcare access to millions, telehealth also has the potential to significantly lower costs in the process. Likewise, telehealth will likely advance our overall quality of health substantially as well.

What is telehealth? Even healthcare providers struggle with this definition at times. Health insurers vary in how they define (and pay) for telehealth services. While most agree that diagnosing a patient over a Skype videoconference is an example of telehealth, other situations are less clear. But some of the dust is beginning to settle. Thanks to some innovative telehealth companies, the future of telehealth services is becoming progressively clearer.

Telehealth vs. Telemedicine

physician checking a patient's vital signs virtually
Virtual patient diagnostics

Some of the confusion regarding telehealth involves another common term, telemedicine. Think of telehealth as the larger umbrella. Telehealth is basically the use of any digital technology that allows you to remotely connect to health-related products and services. From this perspective, telehealth is a very broad term. Educational websites and YouTube videos that show you how to eat healthy or check your blood pressure count as telehealth. Likewise, telehealth services include online prescription ordering, interactive health blogs, and hundreds of other interactions.

Telemedicine, on the other hand, is a category of telehealth services. This telehealth service requires patient diagnosis, treatment, and management using remote telecommunications. For many healthcare providers, telehealth and telemedicine are used interchangeably. But in reality, telehealth offers much greater potential for our future. Imagine if every piece of health information could be accessed anywhere, anytime using a comprehensive telehealth platform. Your exercise data, recent blood pressures, and latest pharmacy refills could be part of your telehealth record. Likewise, telehealth services could link expert advice, research evidence, and education to match your precise needs. This is where the future of telehealth offers incredible excitement.

Driving Telehealth into the Future—Patient Needs

So, what’s the big deal with telehealth? What’s the big push for change? Plenty. For people in rural areas, telehealth lets them speak with medical experts with whom they otherwise might not have access. The same applies for some elderly with limited mobility in regard to telehealth. And for those with mental illness, telehealth lets people interact with a mental health professional with less hassle and social stigma. Telehealth services inherently offers better healthcare services to these populations.

Telehealth also meets other specific patient needs. In a few years, more than 20% of the population will be older than 65 years. And more than 85% of those older than 65 years will have at least one chronic health condition. Telehealth offers the ability to monitor these patients and their conditions remotely with much less cost and inconvenience. Telehealth also reduces the number of complications related to these conditions through more consistent care. For these types of patients in particular, telehealth offers better service, better care, and better outcomes.

Driving Telehealth into the Future—Dollars and Sense

elderly woman using blood pressure monitor while teleconferencing with her doctor
The convenience of telehealth: video services between patient and provider

Patient needs are important, but money also speaks loudly. Recent changes in how providers are being paid are also driving telehealth services. Rather than payments being based on the quantity of healthcare services, quality of care will determine this in the future. Telehealth offers a low-cost solution ideal for such these situations. Providers will be able to render higher quality care with telehealth services across a variety of care settings. Because this will improve patient outcomes, telehealth will provide better payment opportunities for providers.

With telehealth services, providers can ensure patients are taking medications, getting check-ups, and getting better without an office visit. Nurses and therapists can identify problems earlier with telehealth. And patients can more easily address issues remotely through telehealth without long wait times to see a doctor. Better quality of care with telehealth services means fewer complications and visits to the hospital or ER. And this lowers costs for everyone that will continue to drive the use of telehealth moving forward.

Barriers to Telehealth Still Exist

While the future looks bright for telehealth, barriers still persist today that limit its use. One of the most significant barriers for telehealth services is health insurance coverage. While some insurers allow payments for telehealth services, others do not. And even among those that do offer coverage, some telehealth services can be billed while others cannot. Telehealth services that cross state lines also pose problems. Some states will not license a telehealth physician if he or she primarily practices in another state. As a result, that provider may be unable to participate in some interstate telehealth services.

Other telehealth barriers relate to the privacy of health information. The primary reason health information on many personal and mobile devices cannot be shared via telehealth involve data security risks. With telemedicine requiring privacy protections under HIPPA, a great deal of telehealth data cannot be accessed and used. In addition, some people struggle in using new digital technologies. This is often true of older adults, which may also be a barrier in using telehealth services.

Some of Today’s Bold Telehealth Companies

Believe it or not, telehealth services have been around for a while. But the number of telehealth companies today are growing exponentially. With advances in data security, data integration, and the cost of technology, many firms see great tremendous future potential. The following describes a few of the market leaders in telehealth today.

American Well

This telehealth services firm is not new to the healthcare landscape, but it continues to make a big impression. In the last two years, American Well has doubled the number of healthcare systems using its telehealth platform. Among their 70 clients, American Well provides video and phone-based telehealth services. American Well allows data integration from some personal devices (like Apple and Samsung) with EHR information and pharmacy histories. And also, clients can actually market the telehealth services they offer under their own brands.

Avizia

The main competitive advantage for Avizia in the telehealth market stems from its extensive care coordination abilities. Their telehealth services can be used on several types of devices. This allows multiple providers and points-of-care to connect simultaneously. In addition, Avizia offers a cloud-based platform, which can greatly reduce cost barriers for clients. And with extensive encryption, fraud monitoring, and data integration capabilities, Avizia’s telehealth services are both secure and comprehensive.

Carena

This telehealth company began with the concept of making virtual house calls using its telehealth services. Today, Carena offers a virtual telehealth clinic to patients and providers for any health problem. With over 120 hospital partners, Carena can provide a number of telehealth services. These services include all types of medical staffing, marketing, and even healthcare providers. Using its telehealth platform, patients provide consent and pay for services, and hospitals use a variety of services on-demand. In essence, Carena offers one-stop shopping for telehealth.

SnapMD

SnapMD also offers a virtual clinic through its telehealth services. Using high-definition video, screen-sharing, and file-sharing, SnapMD can link multiple sources at once. In addition, telehealth services include scheduling and e-prescribing, and analytics and staff management software services are available. As a result, SnapMD provides comprehensive virtual telehealth clinics for patients, providers, and administrators. And with advanced data integration abilities, different sources of healthcare information can easily talk to one another. It’s just like being in a regular health clinic, but instead, everything is virtual and remote.

Teladoc

Teladoc has been in the telehealth business for 15 years. The company began offering telehealth services to large self-insured employers. Today, its telehealth clients include major health plans, hospitals, and large health systems. Teladoc allows its client to pick and choose how they would like to use telehealth services. One may take advantage of Teladoc’s virtual providers. Another may incorporate their own local physicians into the telehealth services. And still others use a combination of both telehealth services at different times. Teladoc provides high-speed connectivity with real-time information exchange. Its tenure and quality of telehealth services are major reasons they continue to be a market leader in telehealth.

Telehealth’s Future is Inevitable

Healthcare costs have now reached 18% of our nation’s GDP. The average money spent on healthcare per person in the US is double what it is in other countries. Despite this, the US ranks low in many health categories. Bold solutions to lower cost and improve quality of healthcare is desperately needed. For many in the healthcare sector, they believe telehealth offers one of the most powerful solutions to date.

Today, we socialize via Twitter and Facebook. We communicate through Skype and FaceTime videoconferencing. Telehealth is therefore a logical next step for healthcare. With more than three-quarters of the American people using smart phones, advancing healthcare services to a mobile, digital platform makes sense. Though some barriers remain, the cost and quality benefits of telehealth services will continue to incentivize solutions to these problems. Those companies insightful enough to realize this will have a great opportunity to be the telehealth leaders of tomorrow.

 

Sources:

Telehealth use in behavioral health cases shows promise in cost control, with utilization on the rise

Telehealth needs clearer definition amid regulatory inconsistencies, expert says

Comparing 11 top telehealth platforms: Company execs tout quality, safety, EHR integrations

Telehealth: Technology meets health care

 

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