Telehealth has become one of the many buzzwords to be bandied around in the healthcare world. Like so many developments hailed to save the healthcare system, telehealth services hold great promise. From connecting former soldiers to the Veterans Administration to helping healthcare providers in rural areas perform colposcopies, telehealth has found many practical applications throughout the healthcare system.
Telehealth Services: reaching patients anywhere
Telehealth, at its core, refers to healthcare services provided by remote means, where a healthcare provider can treat a patient from thousands of miles away using digital methods of communication. This conjures up images of patients performing surgery on themselves under the guidance of a disembodied computerized voice. Such a dystopian view of the future couldn’t be further from the proponents’ vision for telehealth.
In remote areas with limited access to medical care, telehealth promises to be a game-changer, allowing family doctors, nurse practitioners and even community nurses to offer an increased range of services. Deborah Nucatola, M.D., serves as the Medical Director of Hawaii and Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands as well as the Director of Family Planning at the Eden Surgical Center. She describes how she has incorporated telehealth into her practice:
“Telehealth allows us to reach patients wherever they are. Patients can be seen at a local clinic with expert consultation provided remotely,” says Nucatola. “Importantly, patients receive similar support and counseling opportunities to in-person consultations.”
The Veteran’s Administration (VA) was an early adopter of telehealth methods. With veterans spread out around the country, telehealth allows them greater access to the subsidized services of the Veterans Administration. It offers telehealth services in 13 different areas, from TeleCardiology to TeleAmputation Clinics. All veterans that qualify to use the VA services can access telehealth options. , Telehealth provides an essential part of the recovery process, especially for veterans suffering from PTSD who might find it challenging to leave their homes and travel long distances to receive therapy or other medical treatment.
The Telehealth advantage for physicians
Telehealth is finding an increasing number of applications connecting clinicians to each other. A project recently launched at New Hampshire’s Catholic Medical Center enables neurologists to treat potential stroke victims while still en route to the hospital. The initial 60 minute time period after suffering a stroke is crucial for starting treatments that can limit the effects and damage caused by the stroke. The new ‘Telestroke’ initiative allows ambulance crews to liaise with hospital neurologists to evaluate patients even before they arrive in the hospital.
Telehealth, at its best, allows for a wider distribution of high-level medical expertise. It enables fewer specialist providers to offer treatment and screening to patients at a higher level In the United States and another 26 countries worldwide, many healthcare professionals rely on the EVA System mobile colposcope The EVA System combines a smart online portal with a portable handheld device that allows for up to 16x imaging of the cervix and other related areas. The online capacity enables the telehealth features on the device.
“Users are able to send images immediately to a connected expert colposcopist for referral and diagnosis,” explains Cathy Sebag, the product team manager at MobileODT, the company that produces the EVA System. “It’s possible to refer a case to an expert and receive an answer while the patient is still present, allowing for immediate secondary screening or treatment.
Administrative barriers to telehealth adoption
While medical professionals have rapidly started to embrace telehealth as a solution to providing medical care to underserved areas, insurers lag behind. There is a reluctance among insurers to give the same reimbursement weight to telehealth services as traditional face to face consultations. Many states restrict coverage of certain providers of telemedicine. For example, some states do not allow reimbursement for telemedicine services offered by mental health professionals.
Additionally, clinicians must typically have a license to practice in the state where the services are being received as well as the state in which the physician is located. These factors create a significant barrier to the more widespread adoption of telehealth. “Until telehealth is reimbursed to the same degree as brick and mortar care, healthcare providers will be reluctant to adopt these kinds of solutions,” says Nucatola.
Telehealth holds great promise to bring care, not only to patients who live in geographically underserved areas but also to physically impaired patients who cannot access medical clinics easily. For physicians, it offers the opportunity to extend their services with expert supervision. The many potential benefits make it inevitable for insurers to embrace telehealth as a positive addition to the healthcare services offered.