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How Telehealth is Evolving Healthcare

COVID-19 has influenced changes in every facet of life, including how healthcare is conducted. Telehealth services are making healthcare more accessible for at-risk and rural patients, and is on it's way to becoming the new normal.

In this Article:

What is Telehealth?

What does telehealth actually mean, and how do these services benefit patients?

Telehealth Benefits for Different Patients

An in-depth look at how telehealth services offer a positive experience for different patients wtih different needs.

The Rural Patient: A Telehealth Service Challenge

We take a closer look at the telehealth benefits specific to rural-based patients and healthcare services.

Building a Telehealth Infrastructure

Take the first steps in building a telehealth infrastructure for your healthcare efforts.

What is Telehealth?

Quite literally, telehealth is a form of “long-distance” healthcare and support. Telehealth systems can relay information between patients and providers, and also help easily communicate with one another.

Some might think of telehealth as video chatting and emailing a provider or patient. That’s certainly part of it, but the scope of telehealth services is much broader . This includes appointment settings, the ability to send and receive private test results, log information, patient questions and provider answers, tutorials and instructions, and the ability to supply and order medications.

To illustrate the value of telehealth, let’s look at patient Bob and provider Kim. Bob has recently been prescribed medication that requires certain dietary modifications and regular check-ins, but Bob isn’t always able to make his appointments in person. With a telehealth system, Bob is able to log his diet and ask questions about any side effects or how to use the medication. Kim receives those questions through the telehealth system, and she can review the information Bob provides and answer the questions securely. Kim is also expecting some bloodwork back from the lab that she can transmit to Bob safely, highlighting what parts of the results Bob must be made aware of as he continues to take his medication. Kim can also make notes when Bob is running low on his medication, and she can ensure he automatically receives a prescription refill – even if they can’t see each other in person.

Here’s a key point about Bob: He’s not any one type of patient. Telehealth services can benefit a variety of different patients with varying medical circumstances. In a COVID-19-stricken world, this has only increased the importance of telehealth. But as we’ll illustrate in the following section, there are key situations in which certain types of patients can benefit greatly from telehealth services.

Telehealth Benefits for Patients

As we mentioned in the previous paragraph, telehealth services have benefitted an increasing number of patients since COVID-19 became a global issue. However, there are plenty of common, non-pandemic uses that telehealth services can provide when in-person healthcare services are not an option.

Patients looking to reach specialists: Patients who require specialized treatments may want to speak with a preferred or recommended specialist who is hundreds or thousands of miles away – if not in an entirely different country altogether. If that’s the case, telehealth services enable these patients to meet with these distant specialists without the added hassle of travel arrangements. The range of services available includes finding an appointment time that is convenient for the specialist and patient’s schedules. Thus ensuring the patient can receive instructions and medications from the specialist, and the ability lab work or other sensitive patient data relayed to the specialist securely and privately.

Patients with specific schedules: Unfortunately, not all patients are readily available to make their way to an office for an appointment. The reasons could be numerous, but the issue is rooted in availability. Telehealth technology mitigates these challenges for patients, enabling them to make an appointment that works better for their busy schedules. Providers, likewise, can communicate with patients much more effectively through messaging tools, ensuring patients receive the information they need and providing the doctors and healthcare professionals with information they require.

At-risk patients: These patients, unlike the previous two, may not be able to attend an appointment or regularly leave their homes because doing so could be harmful to their health. In the case of COVID-19, many patients who otherwise would be able to make normal appointments now need to stay home. Because some pre-existing health conditions put patients at higher risk for COVID-19, they need to avoid in-person appointments as a precaution.  Telehealth benefits at-risk patients tremendously by keeping them safe while still receiving the medical treatment they need.

Rural/isolated communities: Some patients may not be able to make a regular appointment or reach a medical professional physically because they live in a more rural area of the country. On average, people in rural areas live twice as far from a hospital, meaning if there’s an emergency or they need immediate treatment, time becomes even more significant. Telehealth services help rural communities attain the medical advice and expertise they need, without the need to travel long distances.

These are just four common examples of patients who benefit from telehealth services, though the list is growing as more people become more comfortable with telehealth services in the wake of COVID-19. A survey cited by eMarketer found that 53% of providers had begun using telehealth services because of the COVID-19 restrictions, and that almost three-in-four adult patients feel comfortable using telehealth services.

As healthcare embraces these services, new considerations and strategies are set on both the practitioner side and the patient side. We will use the rural patient and provider as an example.


The Rural Patient: A Telehealth Service Challenge

Let’s look back at patient Bob and provider Kim from our initial example, only now with some more specific information.

Bob requires regular medical checkups, but the nearest location is almost an hour away – not something Bob can easily make with a rigorous work schedule and a more isolated living situation. Moreover, Bob’s medical needs require his doctors to coordinate closely with one another. That means Kim is going to have to bring in specialists from other areas that may not be able make it into the office. Bob wants to ensure he has up-to-date advice and medical guidance from both Kim and other specialists, and Kim wants to ensure there’s coordination between her, the specialists, and Bob. In addition, Bob will occasionally need to see a specialist over two hours away for tests, and Kim will need those results so she can share and discuss them with Bob.

In this example, telehealth technologies help break down the specific barriers that rural communities have experienced with spread out health services. Telehealth ensures Bob can meet with Kim and the specialists, that Kim and the specialists can coordinate information, and that there are no missed appointments due to lack of time or challenges with distance.

Bob is not alone in benefitting from telehealth services. The CDC highlights several ways that specific chronic diseases can be treated through telehealth, and how rural residents specifically benefit from these services. This includes health issues such as stroke, vision, diabetes and others.

Not only are immediate healthcare needs addressed for rural residents, but telehealth can be used to make follow up appointments. As a result of the continuing virtual communication with patients after their visit, patients have better access to information about what they need to be doing to keep themselves healthy. This might help reduce the number of readmissions that rural hospitals see, which has been a challenge for these organizations, as noted by a 2016 RevCycle study.

In other words, telehealth benefits the patient’s long-term health and care as much as it gives them access to healthcare providers and specialists they need but may not be able to reach as easily, compared to those in more densely populated parts of the country. Likewise, telehealth helps rural-based healthcare providers coordinate with specialists across the country and at bigger hospitals in urban areas, ensuring that their patients obtain the right information and treatments without delay or loss of information.


Building a Telehealth Infrastructure

A February 2019 report from the American Hospital Association found that 76% of providers connect with patients via video and other forms of communication technology, but that “there are still barriers to wide adoption of telehealth” technologies. Technology is only one component of providing great telehealth services.

These are just some of the main key components necessary to create a robust telehealth experience that patients and providers can meaningfully utilize.

High-speed internet connection and network: Because telehealth requires data and information to be quickly relayed between providers, specialists and patients, fast and reliable internet connectivity is a must. Hospitals must be equipped with up-to-date network infrastructures that are tested for reliability. Connectivity and bottlenecking are key. The last thing anyone wants is to have an appointment dropped mid-discussion, or the delivery failure of pertinent information. Consider your wireless connectivity and infrastructure as a first step to implementing telehealth services.

Secure connections and information: With personal patient information being communicated digitally, it is absolutely essential that your connections are secure. The potential for information breaches exists in telehealth as much as in any other digital world, so hospitals must plan accordingly. Ensure you have the right security measures in place and that your staff is well-trained on potential phishing attacks that could breach your otherwise secure infrastructure.

The right hardware: Webcams, tablets, even healthcare tools that have digital connectivity are all crucial in the world of telehealth.  Finding the right tools can make the difference between an accessible, enjoyable telehealth experience, or one that feels disconnected, unreliable and unclear. If you’re unsure of what technologies you need, consider looking into some of the suggestions we have provided on the CDW healthcare and rural healthcare pages.

Training your staff: Like any new technologies and software, your staff must be trained on how to use them for these tools to be meaningfully utilized. Conducting sessions on how to use these technologies, as well as documentation for reference and an IT staff that can answer specific questions, will be critical.

This is only a start to understanding and building the value of telehealth services. For more information, take a look at our healthcare and rural healthcare resource pages, and get in touch with us if you have more specific questions or are ready to take the next step in building your telehealth infrastructure.

Getting Started with Telehealth - Solutions and Services

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