By connecting patients to doctors in real time and over long distances, telehealth expands access to quality care while protecting vulnerable patients from contracting infectious diseases in medical facilities. This has resulted in an immense surge in demand for digital healthcare systems and services during the pandemic.
Telehealth technologies are emerging as an effective and affordable solution to delivering high-quality treatment without running the risk of physical contact with potentially infected patients. How exactly can the integration of telehealth and telemedicine help unburden both patients and providers in the times of pandemic?
We’re discussing that in today’s close-up on virtual care solutions.
What is telehealth?
The World Health Organization defines telehealth as “delivery of healthcare services, where patients and providers are separated by distance.” This delivery usually occurs through the use of ICT networks and devices and focuses on the exchange of health information between a patient and provider regarding diagnosis and treatment.
Telehealth technologies can also serve educational purposes, supporting health professionals in their training, providing easier access to learning resources, and facilitating knowledge sharing and interaction with peers.
Telehealth during the pandemic
Although telehealth solutions have been around for quite some time, it’s only recently that they have entered the mainstream. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 outbreak telemedicine has been seeing an unprecedented surge. The pressing need to deliver remote medical care to millions of patients while they are stuck at home during the pandemic has motivated governments and healthcare officials to take another look at legislation.
Authorities around the world are extending policies and lifting legislative barriers to telehealth adoption to allow providers to manage care through virtual channels, mitigating the risks of in-person clinical visits.
The global telehealth market size is expected to reach $266.8 billion by 2026 | Source
Governments’ response to COVID-19
Countries at the forefront of innovation are developing regulatory frameworks to clear the way for the adoption of eHealth technologies and solutions. Some of them, like Germany or France, have already been actively supporting the deployment of telehealth services over the last few years. Others have introduced measures to facilitate telehealth consultations and prescriptions only recently, as a response to the coronavirus crisis.
- During the state of emergency, the US Health Department relaxed the HIPAA-compliance requirements and is allowing practices to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth services.
- The US COVID-19 Telehealth Program is offering $200 million in funding to healthcare providers to help them finance the deployment of ITC services and purchase devices necessary to deliver critical connected care services to patients.
- In the early stages of the pandemic, the Australian government extended the federal Medicare program to cover telehealth services.
- In response to escalating demand on remote healthcare services, the South Korean government is rolling out plans to ease restrictions on telehealth.
- Similarly, Japan has recently allowed doctors to conduct appointments with first-time patients online or via telephone, without face-to-face interactions.
Telehealth vs. telemedicine: How are they different?
Telehealth is an all-encompassing term that covers telemedicine and telecare, and refers to the remote distribution of all health-related services and information using ICT technologies. Telehealth technologies support virtual medical services, incorporating telemedicine but also going beyond it, to provide preventive health support, chronic disease treatment and medical education. Telehealth solutions cover a broad range of services, including long-distance patient care, advice, reminders, monitoring, intervention, admissions, and education.
Telemedicine is the provision of medical services using a broad range of electronic and telecommunications technologies to deliver care at a distance. It occurs between a patient and a physician or other medical practitioner. Telemedicine focuses primarily on the delivery of remote clinical services, such as monitoring and diagnosis.
Top 4 examples of telehealth services
Telehealth is a broad discipline that covers the full scope of patient care and treatment. Let’s take a look at some examples of telehealth services that can be extended remotely to patients by physicians and other medical providers.
- Online consultations: asynchronous online consultation platforms allow patients to replace in-person appointments with virtual doctor’s consultations, which are quick, convenient, and secure. Most typically, patients fill out a short online form explaining their condition or talk to an online consultant or chatbot. Then, after preliminary assessment, a medical provider replies via email, chat, or phone. Online consultations may be used to gain information about treatment or condition, ask for prescription or referral, consult disease symptoms, and discuss test results.
- Virtual exam room: the virtual exam room is a telehealth service designed to replicate a face-to-face doctor examination. In essence, it’s a live video conferencing tool that enables real-time, high-quality communication between a patient and provider, but one that’s HIPAA-compliant, standardized, and secure, unlike popular general-purpose tools such as Skype. Advanced telehealth examination systems are supported by specialist handheld video devices that allow providers to examine a patient’s heart, lungs, throat, skin, and other parts of the body to diagnose and treat common conditions.
- Patient remote monitoring: telemonitoring solutions are used by providers to remotely track and manage patients’ vital signs and activities through remote sensors (heart rate monitors, drug dispensers) and wearable devices (fitness trackers, step counters, sleep monitoring, etc.). Connected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, they keep a permanent, up-to-date record of the patient’s health, providing doctors with updates and warnings if readings go awry and the patient’s condition requires attention.
- Mobile-based self-care: the growing adoption of smartphones, the expanding popularity of mobile apps, and increasing mobile connectivity penetration have been driving an accelerating uptake in mHealth (mobile health) solutions. Care providers, home health agencies, and other health-related institutions are increasingly exploring how preventive care enabled by mobile health applications may help reduce emergency care, cut down patient readmissions, and improve healthcare outcomes.
Adoption of digital healthcare tools
The essentials of a telemedicine platform
The above telehealth services are delivered through a variety of digital health tools and systems operated by patients and health providers. Bringing them together are advanced healthcare platforms that read, aggregate, and manage healthcare data in a single software application for convenient and secure access.
Seamlessly integrated with the provider’s EMR and other critical systems, and enhanced with the latest machine learning and AI features, these solutions connect patients with healthcare providers to provide affordable, accessible care over long distances.
Integrated telemedicine systems can span a variety of use cases, from routine care and check-ups through emergency care and post-surgical follow-ups, to chronic care management and behavioral monitoring. They are usually tailored to meet the particular needs and purposes of each provider and its patient community. However, there are several features that every robust telemedicine platform should offer to ensure fully remote and secure healthcare support.
Integrated communication methods
Telehealth solutions must deliver efficient chat and real-time communication functionality through the integration of in-app messaging, 1-on-1 video calling, and group videoconferencing. They also have to support high-quality documentation and photo sharing to enable the real-time exchange of patient data.
Medical carts and peripherals integration
Telemedicine carts and kiosks, as well as digital stethoscopes and other peripherals, expand remote diagnostic capabilities for telehealth providers. By coupling peripheral devices with collaboration tools and workflows, telemedicine software enables the delivery of individualized, targeted diagnosis, treatment, and care from any location.
Telehealth platforms usually integrate with the existing EHRs and workflows via open APIs. Such consolidation helps streamline record collection and updates, avoid data duplication, and improve clinical workflows. It also makes it possible to integrate virtual care and consultations with on-site appointments quickly.
On the patient’s end, the most convenient way to access telehealth services is usually through mobile devices. A mobile Software Development Kit is essential to plug in telehealth services into a practice’s or hospital’s existing patient portal or mobile app. This way, medical providers can seamlessly extend their current offering via telemedicine in a way that’s fully transparent to patients.
Connected health technologies are already delivering impact, but it’s the global adoption of 5G that is expected to take telehealth delivery to a whole new level. The low latency and high capacity of evolving 5G networks offer opportunities for healthcare providers to unlock an entire range of new digital health use cases. This transformation is imminent; that’s why future-proof telemedicine platforms must be able to work with the 5G standard.
Governance and compliance
Each country mandates its own set of privacy protection and data security regulations that all telehealth solutions must observe. In the USA, for example, it’s HIPAA; European companies follow GDPR data protection rules; and Asian providers comply with the ASEAN Framework on Personal Data Protection. During the development of any telemedicine platform, it’s essential to understand the nuances of appropriate legal frameworks and stipulations and comply with them.
Apart from the state-regulated compliance, all telehealth platforms should implement essential security measures to protect the highly sensitive data they handle, including encrypted data transmission, unique user identification, and secure network connections.
Summing it up
As most governments are looking to decrease the burden on healthcare services without deteriorating patient outcomes, the adoption of telehealth solutions is picking up the pace. Facilitated by the ongoing technological progress and accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth services are also winning patients’ favor.
In the Asia Pacific, for example, nearly a half of healthcare consumers are expecting to use digital health tools within the next few years. Therefore, the rapid shift to digital healthcare solutions should not be seen as a temporary trend but rather an indicator of an emerging approach to healthcare service delivery that is about to transform medicine forever.
Future-driven healthcare organizations are already investing in telemedicine services to scale their medical practice and impact more lives. With Intellias’ support, they may take the burden off the already strained healthcare systems even faster. Bringing together technology expertise and know-how in software engineering, our teams can help you tackle the enormous task of assembling a fully integrated telemedicine system. Talk to us!