Are you thinking about adding telehealth technology to your organization and offering telehealth services for your patients? You're not alone. In fact, national utilization of telehealth grew by a whopping 53% from 2016 to 2017, according to a FAIR Health report. That's significantly higher than any other place of service studied for that variable in the report, which looked at national insurance claims filed for alternative settings of care.
By comparison, usage of urgent care centers increased 14%, retail clinics were up 7%, and ambulatory surgery centers increased 6%. Furthermore, a JAMA study found that annual telehealth visits among commercially insured patients increased by 52% annually from 2005 to 2014, and then 261% from 2015 to 2017.
Why has there been such a boom in the use of and excitement about telehealth? There are several advantages to using it that benefit patients and providers. Here are eight of them.
1. Decreases Strain on Healthcare System
Patient access to care is a substantial problem in the United States. A Patient Engagement HIT article notes, "… patient care access is not a reality for many patients across the country. Between appointment availability issues and troubles getting a ride to the clinician office, patient care access has many associated challenges." A survey by The Commonwealth Fund found that "Half of U.S. adults struggled to get healthcare on the weekends and evenings without going to an emergency department."
Scheduling an appointment with their primary care physician and specialists can be difficult for patients, and they may be required to wait a significant amount of time to get into the office. When they do finally make and keep appointments, they are required to take a considerable amount of time from their day. A different Patient Engagement HIT report states, "Patients are spending 45 minutes traveling to and waiting for their medical appointments," and then another 75 minutes with their doctors.
These challenges are likely to be magnified in the coming years. A Healthcare IT News report notes that more than 75 million Baby Boomers will soon avail themselves of their Medicare benefits, straining an already overtaxed health system.
The report then highlights the critical role telehealth and remote care technologies will continue to play in the coming years. "[They] will be key to helping deliver appropriate care to these aging patients while keeping costs under control. Whether deployed as an affordable means of after-hours medical coverage at skilled nursing facilities or as intuitive voice-activated home tools to help with remote monitoring and distance-based consults, telehealth is reaching maturation at just the moment it's needed most."
2. Reduces Rural Barriers to Care
One of the most significant benefits of telehealth is its ability to address obstacles associated with delivering care in rural areas of the country. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that, "… one out of every four people living in rural areas said they couldn't get the healthcare they needed recently. And about a quarter of those said the reason was that their healthcare location was too far or difficult to get to," according to an NPR article. Furthermore, the number of rural hospitals is declining. More than 100 have closed since 2010, and hundreds more are viewed as vulnerable, NPR notes.
Telehealth can help address some of these challenges. As an article from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology states, "In particular, rural healthcare settings can benefit from telemedicine technology as it effectively shrinks the distances between nodes of rural care, which can reduce patients' driving time, make healthcare more accessible for patients who live in communities with few specialist options, and promote patient-centered care."
3. Aids Patients With Limited Mobility
For those patients who struggle with traveling to care settings, telehealth can make a significant difference in wellbeing.
As a U.S. News & World Report article notes, "Particularly for older adults who face transportation challenges, healthcare delivered via technology from a doctor off-site may be the future of making sure seniors get the healthcare when and where they need it most."
Senior patients aren't the only people dealing with mobility issues. As a HealthLeaders article states, "… for patients who don't have a reliable means of transportation or who struggle with mobility challenges or disabilities that make traveling difficult, remote access can be a huge quality of life improvement. This is especially true for those living with chronic conditions for which frequent checkups are necessary."
4. Expedites Timely Care
A considerable challenge facing healthcare is the ability to direct patients to the right provider as fast as possible. On the way to getting to the best provider, patients may make unnecessary trips to the emergency room, urgent care clinic, or their primary care physician.
As a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia article notes, "Telehealth can lead to more timely care. A three-year-old may have a puffy eye that's so painful that they won't open it and cries when it’s touched. To top it off, they have a fever of 102. An on-demand video visit will allow us to get a better sense of the situation than a phone call, and in this case, we would likely refer the patient to urgently see a provider because it could be a more serious bacterial infection of the soft tissue around the eye."
5. Supports Independence
For many older patients, maintaining independence is a high priority. Telehealth can play a pivotal role in helping people avoid reliance on others and institutionalization.
A mHealth Intelligence report states, "From innovative connected care platforms to the Internet of Things, telehealth is showing today's seniors (and tomorrow's soon-to-be seniors) how they can live out their golden years in their own homes." The report, referencing AARP statistics, notes that "… 87% of seniors age 65 and older, and 71% of those between 50 and 64 want to age in place, and will require home-based technology to make that a reality."
6. Delivers Cost Savings
On top of all of its clinical benefits, telehealth can provide financial ones as well.
One recent study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that "Net cost savings per telemedicine visit was calculated to range from $19–$121 per visit." A HealthLeaders article on the study noted that "The bulk of the cost savings from the telemedicine program was generated in diverting patients from emergency departments. Each avoided emergency department visit garnered cost savings ranging from $309 to more than $1,500."
A study from health insurer Humana found that, "Telemedicine visits were paid out at an average of $38 — a much lower price tag than the $114 cost of a face-to-face consultation," reports Healthcare Dive.
And a study by Duke University School of Medicine's Duke Clinical Research Institute showed that, "Healthcare providers saved almost $2,750 per patient by using telehealth instead of in-person treatment for post-discharge physical therapy after knee replacement surgery," reports mHealth Intelligence. Furthermore, and just as important, "The study also found that both modes of treatment were similar in reducing knee instability and improving knee function."
7. Offers Extensive Telehealth Technology Options
The great news for organizations considering whether to add telehealth technology to their clinical repertoire is that there are numerous solutions to choose from. A Mayo Clinic article provides a list of the types of telehealth technology that can be helpful to patients with diabetes. These include:
- Mobile phone or another device to upload information for review by a clinician.
- App to estimate how much insulin is needed.
- Online patient portal to view test results, schedule appointments, request prescription refills, and email a doctor.
- Online system for ordering of testing supplies and medications.
- Mobile retinal photoscreening to check for diabetic retinopathy.
- Email, text, and/or phone reminders for preventive care.
Organizations could leverage these and other technologies to improve existing services or provide new services in their efforts to better care for diabetic patients.
8. Applications for Telemedicine Services Aplenty
In addition to patients with diabetes, there are numerous other conditions and situations that telehealth can help improve.
For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has its own telehealth program: VA Telehealth Services, which "…uses health informatics, disease management, and telehealth technologies to target care and case management to improve access to care, improving the health of veterans."
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Telehealth Program is designed to connect "… small or rural community hospitals and outpatient locations to specialists at UPMC, allowing patients to receive world-class care close to home," the program's website notes. Physicians provide consultations in 15 specialties via video conferencing and store-and-forward photograph and record transmission.
The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for TeleHealth has several programs, including those for pediatrics, psychiatry, and radiology. As its website notes, the Center for Telehealth "… provides patients and consulting providers virtual options for access to the expertise of Mass General clinicians. Users of the telehealth service communicate, collaborate, and share their information remotely using familiar and easy to use tools. These tools allow providers to interact with patients — and each other — in a way that is most convenient and best suited to the patient's medical needs."
As a final example, there's the Chronic Care Management Program (CCMP), a telehealth pilot program at Frederick Memorial Hospital (FMH). It was designed to "… monitor high-risk chronic disease patients who may not qualify for home health, have been discharged from home health, or have refused home health," notes a press release. In January, the hospital announced that the program reduced hospital readmissions by 89% and emergency department visits by 49% for enrolled patients.
In the release, Lisa Hogan, chronic care management team leader at FMH, is quoted as saying, "Much of CCMP's success is due to the personal relationships we build with our patients as well as the great technology with the telemonitors. We call each patient at least weekly and involve them in setting goals for themselves. It is wonderful to see the growth and independence develop as we come alongside them."