As more of the world has switched to virtual meetings, online conferences, and video events, it’s no surprise that medicine is adapting to a new virtual landscape.
Telehealth means delivering health care, information, and education using digital technologies like video conferencing. This article will explore the benefits of telehealth and show you what tools you need to make it a reality in your practice.
Telehealth is when a medical practitioner offers health care services remotely using tools like video conferencing, phone calls, and other virtual tools. Telehealth has been around for a while, but it has exploded in popularity in the past few years.
McKinsey & Co, a management consulting firm, recently estimated that $250 billion of US healthcare spending would shift to telehealth. The growth in telehealth popularity is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many patients were reluctant to visit clinics and hospitals in person during the height of the health crisis. There has also been greater support for telehealth by insurance organizations.
Telemedicine is the practice of delivering medical care services at a difference. Telemedicine offers significant potential to improve medical care for many people. For example, people with limited mobility may use telemedicine to ask questions, receive advice, and speed up their medical care. In addition, people in rural or isolated areas may use telemedicine to access specialized doctors, nurses, and other professionals who do not live in their local community.
Drawing a clear distinction between telehealth vs. telemedicine is challenging. Some people and organizations use these terms interchangeably. That said, there is an emerging difference between them.
Telehealth is the broader term that can cover services, information, and education, monitoring provided by doctors, nurses, and volunteers. The fact that telehealth services could be performed by a variety of people, not just medical doctors, is one reason why telehealth can be more affordable. In addition, a telehealth service might provide general-purpose health information like answering questions about vaccines.
Telemedicine involves providing clinical health care services remotely. For example, a patient with a chronic health condition like diabetes may meet with their doctor for a regular checkup. Telemedicine can also include more complex procedures. For instance, medical professionals have used telemedicine to perform surgery remotely. This type of remote work is a cost-effective way to increase access to medicine. According to Healthcare IT News, certain medical specialties like neurosurgery and urology have seen higher rates of telemedicine usage.
Setting up telehealth services takes careful planning, the right technology, and creative thinking. Fortunately, there are several models of telehealth services that you can study to inform your approach. Before diving into specific technologies and methods, it is important to understand restrictions.
Restrictions on telehealth services take several forms. First, there are insurance restrictions – not all health insurance providers support telehealth providers in the same way as traditional health providers. In the US, Medicare coverage for telehealth has recently evolved. For instance, you can get coverage for virtual check-ins, e-visits, and a few other kinds of telehealth services (e.g., renal dialysis and some emergency department visits). Confirming what telehealth services are covered is an important first step in setting up telehealth services.
The next restriction is practical: not all medical and health care procedures can be performed at a distance. For instance, a doctor video visit might make sense for a patient being monitored in some cases like post-surgery follow-up. However, in other situations, telehealth services might not be suitable. For example, a doctor video session cannot take blood or other tissue samples for testing.
The final type of restriction to understand includes skills and regulatory matters. It is unwise to assume that all patients and healthcare professionals have access to the same technology. Likewise, technology skills are likely to vary. When a patient is suffering, they may have difficulty interacting with telehealth providers. As you plan, your suite of telehealth services, training guides, videos, and other support resources may be needed. Without these resources, your patients and stakeholders may not be able to access telehealth providers when needed.
Resource: To speed up the process of creating your training for doctor video calls, check out our guide: Video Meeting Checklist: How-To Host Video Conferences.
Setting up telehealth services requires several technologies. Review the following tips and see if your organization has the right tools in place.
A doctor video meeting forms the core of many telehealth offerings. Therefore, it is wise to spend time testing different video platforms. Consider factors like how many attendees can join the consultation. At a minimum, there will usually be two participants in a doctor video meeting (i.e., the doctor and the patient). However, additional participants like the patient’s spouse and the doctor’s assistant or nurse may also join the call.
When you select a video meeting platform for telehealth services, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind. Telehealth services involve discussing sensitive information like illnesses, symptoms, and treatment plans. To keep this information safe, a high level of security and privacy protection is essential. Look for platforms that meet GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) requirements. While not created for telehealth services specifically, using a GDPR video meeting solution is helpful. Meeting GDPR expectations means that the tool has to take substantial measures to protect personal data.
To make your video calls easy to use, telehealth providers need high-quality audio and video tools. Fortunately, most modern laptops and smartphones include webcams and microphones. On the patient side, telehealth providers should strive to be flexible. Let patients use whatever tools they have available. That includes offering the option for dial-in by phone if that is what patients want.
When it comes to the healthcare provider side of the meeting, invest in the best tools you can afford. For example, take a look at the light situation in your office. When possible, take advantage of natural light on video calls. When natural light is not available, putting a lamp or ring light behind your webcam makes it easier to see your face.
In addition to lighting, purchasing noise-canceling headphones and a microphone is a smart decision. These additional pieces of equipment are especially important when you offer telehealth services in a group setting. When there are other telehealth conversations happening nearby, it is wise to take steps to protect patient confidentiality. When feasible, close the door to your workspace during doctor video calls.
Tip: The best audio and video equipment in the world is useless if you don’t know how to turn it on. Before you join your next video call, use the tips we have in the following article: Quick Tips to Test Your Webcam And Microphone. For example, there are free websites you can use to verify if your webcam is working before you start a video meeting.
A broadband Internet connection is critically important for most telehealth services, especially those involving video. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission recommended the following minimum broadband speeds: 25 megabit download speed and three megabit upload speed. You can use a service like Speedtest.net to check your Internet speed. If your Internet speed is low, you may need to upgrade your Internet service or get closer to your Internet router.
Assuming telehealth services are new for your organization, starting small makes sense. Start by offering services that lend themselves to a video call. For example, you might start off by offering drop-in calls with your nurse staff. Alternatively, your approach to telehealth services might emphasize following up with patients with chronic illnesses.
Once you choose the specific telehealth services you want to launch, promote those services to your patients. Post about your new telehealth services on social media, on your website, and put up signs about it in your location.
Finally, make time for continuous improvement and measurement of your telehealth services. Every 90 days, reach out to patients, doctors, and other users to gather feedback. Ask them about what is working and what is not working in your organization’s approach to telehealth services. The feedback you receive will help you to make your telehealth services even better.
Now that you know the answer to “What is telehealth?” your next step is clear. Discuss whether and how to offer telehealth services to your community. In most cases, the fastest and easiest way to get started is to offer doctor video meetings.