If you watch any TV hospital dramas, you may have seen this already – a talking robot wandering the halls controlled by a remote doctor who is pictured on a computer screen at the head of the robot. These machines may look odd, but they are going to get a lot more popular over the next few decades. Telehealth is one of the most effective ways to increase health care availability throughout the United States, especially in rural and isolated communities where good doctors are hard to find.
What is telehealth?
Remote-controlled robots are one (pretty neat) aspect of telehealth, but the term covers much more than that. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines it as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”
Modalities of telehealth
There are four main ways to implement telehealth services:
- Live video – Real-time interaction between a patient or caregiver and a medical specialist. This can include remote diagnosis, treatment or follow-up.
- Store-and-forward – Pre-recorded videos or images that are sent through a secure connection to a remote specialist who evaluates the information and sends a response back through the secure system.
- Remote patient monitoring (RPM) – Medical staff give a monitoring device to a patient, who can use it to record health and medical data from home. The data is transmitted on a regular basis (sometimes daily or hourly) to the medical provider for continuous monitoring and support.
- Mobile health (mHealth) – Combines health care services and education with mobile applications, such as targeted text messages, emails or alerts.
Telehealth brings experienced medical care right into patients’ homes, or at least their hometowns. This is a huge plus for patients because:
- They gain access to medical experts in cities they can’t travel to due to mobility issues or financial hardship – a critical factor for the 16% of Americans who live in rural areas.
- Doctors and medical service providers can monitor patients without the need for in-office appointments – and the co-pays that go along with them.
- Educational tools and support are available at the touch of a button.
The benefits of telehealth will become increasingly important as we get closer to 2025. By this time, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts there could be a shortage of up to 94,700 physicians in the United States. The aging “Baby Boomer” population, in particular, will have a major impact on the medical industry over the next few years. Not only will the need for senior services increase, but the supply of caregivers will simultaneously decrease because over one-third of all current physicians are expected to retire in the next decade. “Physicians between ages 65 and 75 account for 11% of the active workforce, and those between ages 55 and 64 make up nearly 26% of the active workforce,” the AAMC reports. As the ratio of doctors to patients decreases, the appropriate use of technology in patient care will help close the gap and allow doctors to save in-office appointments only for those patients who truly need it.
Any hospital or health care facility that receives federal funding is required to offer language access programs for patients who don’t speak English fluently. With nearly 1 in 5 U.S. residents speaking a foreign language in their homes (Spanish and Chinese are the most popular), the implementation of increased telehealth services needs to take patients’ language needs into account. Telehealth services will need to incorporate translated websites, mobile apps and communications, medical documents and devices, as well as simultaneous interpretation of live video through on-site medical interpreters. One alternative to translating healthcare apps is to use pictures and icons. However, even these must take cultural differences into consideration.
What are my options?
Check with your health care provider to see what telehealth services they have available. You can use patient-focused technologies to take greater control of your own health. Even if you’re not ready to talk to a doctor through a robot head computer screen, there could be other telehealth resources that could help you in your day-to-day life (e.g. educational websites, automated appointment reminders, newsletters that are specific to your health needs, and more). With demands increasing on the healthcare system and a growing shortage of healthcare professionals, telehealth services could be your best bet for quality local care at a reasonable cost.