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What is Telehealth? Telehealth Definition & Best Practices in a Post Coronavirus World

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During the coronavirus pandemic, many state governments have issued mandatory stay-at-home orders, asking residents to remain at home and to practice social distancing. The COVID-19 crisis is particularly worrisome for caregivers of people who have compromised immune systems, such as those with chronic health conditions, people who have disabilities, and older adults. While receiving ongoing healthcare is essential, visiting doctor’s offices, hospitals, and clinics are risky, potentially exposing immune-deficient people and their caregivers to the coronavirus – not to mention other contagious illnesses. In this post, we’ll discuss telehealth and how it provides a welcome, safe alternative to face-to-face healthcare during this period of crisis.

Definition of Telehealth

Telehealth is the delivery and facilitation of health-related services using telecommunications technologies and electronic or digital information. In addition to clinical health care, telehealth includes leveraging technologies to provide patient education, professional health-related education, and public health and health administration at a distance or remotely. For seniors, disabled persons, and their caregivers, telehealth allows them to receive vital healthcare services without leaving their homes or visiting providers’ offices in the presence of others who could have been exposed to COVID-19.

Best Practices for Leveraging Telehealth Technologies to Benefit Caregivers

Telehealth isn’t a specific service. Instead, it’s a term that describes the technologies and methods for delivering health care and health education. Telehealth encompasses a variety of technologies, including internet, videoconferencing, streaming media, wireless communications, and more, all of which make receiving healthcare services both safer and more convenient for seniors, people with disabilities, and family caregivers. There are four primary methods of information exchange used in telehealth, although new technologies are being explored and adopted across the health care industry continuously:

Mobile Health

Also known as mHealth, these solutions are accessed via smartphones, smart watches, other wearable devices, and laptops and tablets. The mobile health application landscape is constantly evolving. In fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing categories in the app market, and the global mobile health market is valued at an estimated $4 billion as of 2017, and the market is expected to grow to $11 billion by 2025. In the third quarter of 2019, there were 44,384 iOS healthcare apps available on the Apple App Store and 41,377 healthcare apps available on the Google Play Store.

Some of the most popular mHealth apps include those designed for managing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and medication management. These apps are especially useful for family caregivers, providing easier, more convenient options for disease management and ready access to healthcare advice that can help them provide the best possible care for their loved ones.

Remote Patient Monitoring

Remote Patient Monitoring, or RPM, is the collection of health data from patients using digital technology. While the patient and healthcare provider are in different physical locations, RPM collects data and transmits that data to the provider, who then uses the data to support assessment, diagnosis, and recommendations.

RPM is particularly useful for monitoring health data for patients who are residing at home and have difficulty traveling to the provider’s office, such as frail older adults and people with disabilities, and for patients in non-acute care facilities. In these instances, the use of RPM can help to reduce hospital readmissions by allowing healthcare providers to continually monitor critical health data, such as vital signs, oxygen levels, blood sugar levels, weight, and more. For family caregivers, RPM provides the added security that their loved one’s vital signs and other health statistics are being monitored regularly by professionals who can identify potential warning signs and health concerns that aren’t always obvious to family members or primary caregivers.

Videoconferencing

Remote health consultations and examinations, supported by videoconferencing technologies, are increasingly common. Videoconferencing can be used for everything from consultations between two physicians or other healthcare providers to providing care remotely for rural patients, incarcerated patients, and even deployed military personnel. It’s often used to supplement RPM technologies, allowing providers to consult with patients and their caregivers remotely to discuss changes to the patient’s medications, treatments, or other recommendations in response to the patient’s health data.

Store-and-Forward

Store-and-forward technologies support the capture, storage, and transmission of health and medical information, such as digital images, documents, videos, and text-based patient data. For example, store-and-forward is the technology used to transmit CAT scans, X-rays, and MRIs between providers or departments to aid in consultations, evaluations, and treatment. Store-and-forward technologies rely on secure servers, routers, and email applications that securely store incoming packets of information temporarily, then route them to the appropriate recipient.

Is Telehealth the Same as Telemedicine?

Telehealth and telemedicine are not the same. Telemedicine refers to clinical diagnosis and monitoring services that are delivered through the use of technology, while telehealth is a broader term that includes a variety of technologies and tactics used to deliver or support the delivery of remote health care or education, including diagnosis and management, education, and related fields. Overall, telehealth encompasses the following health fields in addition to traditional clinical diagnosis and monitoring:

  • Home health care
  • Chronic disease monitoring and management
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Counseling
  • Dentistry
  • Consumer and professional education
  • Disaster management

Does Insurance Pay for Telehealth?

State and federal agencies may have slightly different definitions of telehealth. These definitions may influence policies and regulations and impact how telehealth may be used and whether telehealth may be covered through health insurance policies or Medicaid. The Center for Connected Health Policy maintains an interactive map of telehealth policies that includes information on 11 categories of laws, regulations, and state Medicaid policies related to telehealth.

Currently, 49 states allow for Medicaid reimbursement for some form of live video, 20 state Medicaid programs will reimburse for Remote Patient Monitoring, 32 state Medicaid programs will reimburse for a transmission, facility fee, or both, and 15 states allow Medicaid reimbursement for store-and-forward.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many states have loosened guidelines and regulations to allow for greater access to telehealth services, particularly for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, disabled persons, and those who care for them. Family caregivers have greater peace of mind with access to vital healthcare services without the need to take their loved ones into the community and risking exposure to the dangerous coronavirus.

How Telehealth Supports Caregiving

Telehealth encompasses a valuable set of services and tools that can support family caregivers in a variety of ways. First and foremost, knowing that they can reach out and connect with their loved one’s healthcare provider through a patient portal or other means provides peace of mind for family caregivers. The ability to monitor patients remotely means that caregivers caring for loved ones with mobility challenges don’t have to manage the challenging task of getting their loved one to a provider’s office as frequently. Telehealth is an especially valuable benefit for those caring for a loved one with a compromised immune system, as it means less exposure to physical healthcare environments where exposure to germs and viruses is common.

Other telehealth tools can help caregivers manage stress and anxiety by providing in-the-moment access to patient and caregiver education and support. For caregivers who are also working outside the home, telehealth is a time-saving option that can also be cost-effective. Telehealth is just one of several ways that technology can enhance the lifestyle of seniors.

Overall, telehealth options can improve access to care, reduce caregiver stress, and improve quality of life for both patients and their caregivers. While telehealth is particularly beneficial for keeping seniors, disabled persons, and their caregivers safe during the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth is not only valuable during times of crisis, but provides safe, convenient access to a host of health-related services when traditional, face-to-face healthcare is not practical or accessible.

 

 

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