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Over the last two decades, the way medical services are provided has undergone radical changes. With boosts in internet speed and availability and the advent of smartphone and mobile applications worldwide, new ways of treating patients are now accessible almost for everyone. In this article, we will talk about telemedicine and telehealth, how it works, and how it benefits both providers and patients.

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is the “remote delivery of healthcare services.” But telemedicine isn’t really a new thing—physicians have been providing telephone consultations for decades. However, COVID-19 has brought telemedicine to the forefront of healthcare. Based on a Merritt Hawkins’s survey, almost half of US doctors now provide treatment for patients by using telemedicine. 

Telemedicine allows patients to communicate with a healthcare provider using technology instead of physically visiting a doctor’s office or hospital and eliminating the threat of disease exposure to patients and doctors. They can discuss symptoms, ask for medical advice, learn treatment options, and more with a healthcare provider in real-time using video, online portals, and chat. In cases where it’s necessary, healthcare providers can even monitor patients’ health indicators using devices remotely to keep an eye on their conditions.

Telemedicine vs Telehealth

According to HealthIT, telehealth is “the utilization of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health education, public health and health administration.” Although the definition sounds a lot like telemedicine, telehealth also covers non-clinical events like appointment scheduling, proceeding with medical education (CME), and doctor training.

The terms telemedicine and telehealth bring with them plenty of debate among individuals in the healthcare field. One reason for this debate is the varying definitions of the terms themselves. Some experts consider telemedicine to be physician-focused and telehealth to include all health professionals in general.

As technology in the medical field continues to advance, the two terms will likely become more distinguishable. 

How Telemedicine Works

When thinking about telemedicine, there are two primary methods of deployment in use currently:

What is telemedicine and telehealth

Patient Portals

Patients can communicate with their healthcare providers through patient portals to ask questions, set up appointments, and get prescriptions refilled. Such portals also provide the ability to store and securely share medical records, like tab tests and x-rays.

Virtual Appointments

This is another form of telemedicine that is rapidly gaining popularity. This type of meeting uses teleconsultation and lets patients and their doctors speak through phone or video conference. By removing the requirement for an in-office consultation, patients can have an appointment with a doctor without leaving home and receive medical advice much faster. 

Types of Telemedicine

There are three main types of telemedicine—remote monitoring, real-time interactive services, and store-and-forward. Within healthcare, they both have a specific role to play and can benefit patients and healthcare professionals alike when used in the right way.

What is telemedicine and telehealth

Remote Monitoring 

Remote monitoring utilizes technology and devices to allow clinicians and medical professionals to monitor patient health remotely. 

With telemonitoring, doctors receive specific data from biosensors worn by the patient. These devices can be as simple as an electronic scale or an implanted glucometer. Based on the gathered information, the doctor suggests treatment plans and prescribes medication.

There are many benefits to remote monitoring, but the primary ones are reduced costs and improved patient satisfaction. 

Real-Time Interactive Services (Teleconsultation)

Teleconsultation allows patients and physicians to communicate in real-time while also maintaining HIPAA compliance. This ability to remotely converse helps save patients time traveling to and from the doctor’s office. Cisco research shows that 74% of patients are comfortable using technology for their consultations versus in-person visits. 

While tools like Skype, Zoom, Facetime, and others offer some capabilities for real-time interactive services, they are not ideal as they do not account for patient privacy considerations.

There are many examples of teleconsultation already in use worldwide:

  • Telenursing: consultations over the phone or video conference allow nurse practitioners to diagnose and monitor health conditions remotely. This is a cost-effective solution for minor ailments and particularly well-suited for rural areas.
  • Telepharmacy: pharmacists can monitor and advise patients remotely and, based on local regulations, refill prescriptions, saving patients significant amounts of time.
  • Telerehabilitation: physicians use video chats to evaluate the effectiveness of therapy with rehab patients. New exercises are designed based on how the patient is performing.

Store-and-Forward

This type of telemedicine is more about the interaction of different healthcare providers. Sometimes called “asynchronous telemedicine,” it is how various providers share patient information. This information can include lab reports, videos, patient records, and more, and is often shared between general practitioners and specialists. Very similar to email, it offers many more features that are specifically related to patient security and confidentiality.

Store-and-Forward telemedicine is a very efficient means of communicating. It allows patients, doctors, and specialists to converse and collaborate quickly and easily.

Benefits of Telemedicine

There are many benefits that both patients and healthcare providers can receive through the use of telemedicine. 

What is telemedicine and telehealth

How Telemedicine Benefits Patients

There is no need for patients to lose hours of their day when they make the long ride to the doctor’s office. Today, individuals can even schedule an appointment during a work break or after work hours.

Telemedicine allows patients who previously had limited access to health care services to receive consultations without leaving their homes. The ability to receive a diagnosis and medicine prescriptions distantly allows patients to receive medical attention whenever needed. Telemedicine allows the monitoring of certain chronic medical conditions such as blood pressure, blood glucose, or other remote assessments. Moreover, patients can receive consultation from specialists located anywhere in the country or even the world – it’s a great opportunity for those who seek some rare expertise or can’t travel.

Perhaps most importantly, reducing in-person meetings means less exposure to other potentially sick and contagious individuals in today’s climate. Telemedicine enables health care institutions to provide low-risk urgent care for non-COVID-19 conditions, identifying those persons who may need additional medical consultation or assessment.

How Telemedicine Benefits Providers

Telemedicine allows healthcare institutions to improve their processes and enable more personalized treatment options, driving more revenue and strengthening trust. Telemedicine automates routine operations like sending reminders, ensuring fewer missed appointments, and helps drive an improved patient communication plan.

Healthcare systems, physician practices, and nursing facilities can provide care more efficiently by utilizing telemedicine solutions. Technologies integrated with telemedicine software like electronic medical records, AI diagnosis, and medical streaming devices can better assist providers in diagnosis and treatment. The latter allows providers to monitor patients in real-time and adjust treatment plans when necessary. Ultimately, this leads to better patient outcomes.

Providers can also benefit from increased revenue. By utilizing telemedicine, healthcare organizations can provide more services by hiring specialists from different locations to cover various needs, and even provide additional services such as 24/7 support for patients located anywhere in the world.

You can check out a recent HIPAA-compliant telemedicine solution that streamlines workflow and enhance patient care.

Barriers of Telemedicine

There are some barriers to addressing sensitive topics, especially if the patient has discomfort or privacy concerns. Some patients may have limited access to technological devices required for a telehealth visit or cultural acceptance of virtual instead of in-person visits. Besides, in some cases telemedicine can’t replace a physical examination—when it takes touching the patient, being able to listen to the heart to make a diagnosis. But taking the big picture, there are two significant concerns.

Costliness and Adoption Process

Healthcare systems that utilize telemedicine solutions can attest that it entails a lot of time and funds. Implementation of new technology always involves training, and seldom, it can be challenging for personnel to adapt to changes. Nurses, physicians have to learn how to use the technology to see actual benefits. Though telemedicine can be costly, to begin with, healthcare organizations should see a positive return on investment over time due to more patients and fewer staff.

Security Concerns

Both providers and patients have concerns with telemedicine solutions due to the enormous amount of sensitive data in the healthcare sphere. Physicians can communicate with their patients via video or text chats or a phone call, but the safety of these communications must be ensured – full data encryption, secure person-to-person network connections, and no data or video storage. 

Telemedicine providers must also be prepared to sign a business associate agreement that confirms that they are taking responsibility for safeguarding patient information.

HIPAA and Other Telemedicine Regulations

Health systems, policymakers, and providers can attest that there are many unconsidered points in telemedicine. One area that needs more clarity is the legal aspects. Because the industry is constantly evolving, it has become difficult to come up with a specific solution. Here are some of the regulations that are associated with telemedicine.

HIPAA 

The exact terms to patient privacy and confidentiality are applied to in-person visits and online visits. The providers have an equal responsibility to safeguard patient information. 

Services like Skype or Facetime don’t provide required encryption and therefore are not HIPAA compliant. To remain compliant, providers must ensure full encryption of data transmission and no video storage by developing a custom solution or adopting a third-party service. 

Policies and Reimbursement

Technology is developing rapidly, and policymakers need to keep up with the industry. Uncertainty concerning matters like reimbursement policies, privacy, and healthcare legislation. Besides, every state has its own telemedicine laws. 

There are currently 29 states in the U.S. with telemedicine parity laws, which require private payers to reimburse in the same way they would for an in-person visit. But nowadays, some health plans do not pay providers the same rates for in-person services. The payment also can vary from provider to provider. When providers can’t receive a reimbursement and can’t bill their patients for the provided service, many forego telemedicine solutions.

Medical Licensing 

Even though telemedicine allows physicians to treat patients across the country, there are restrictions on services in different states. Physicians may need to apply for a full medical license in all states to practice medicine across states, which is a time-consuming and expensive process. 

Moreover, even after acquiring the necessary permissions to practice telemedicine across states, physicians may need to adhere to state particular practice rules that are diverse and sometimes contradictory. 

Interstate medical licensure allows more doctors to counsel people in remote or rural areas, but it is now available in only a few states. 

Application of Telemedicine 

Medical organizations have a variety of ways in which they can apply telemedicine to their processes. 

What is telemedicine and telehealth

Remote Chronic Disease Management

Some chronic diseases like diabetes can be tracked and monitored through telemedicine applications. 

Physicians can monitor patients’ health distantly by using high-tech medical devices. This allows specialists to access heart rate, blood pressure, and more by transmitting data from one device to another. When indicators exceed the normal range, a physician can intervene and provide needed assistance in real-time or arrange hospitalization if required. Recognizing exacerbation and deterioration in the early stages helps reduce risks and increases the effectiveness of treatment, which leads to better health outcomes. Moreover, patients can maintain control over their health in an easier and less expensive way.

One of the use cases is a telehealth program for patients with chronic heart failure. The platform and mobile app allow sending text messages, check notifications, and open video channels. More than 91% of physicians said the program was efficient and remote consultations improved the patients’ experience.

Follow-Up Visits

Telemedicine solutions can improve and automate sending of reminders to patients about regular appointments and scheduled visits. This automation can include text or email and helps reduce missed appointments.

Preventative Care Support

Good health is about more than just medicine. Preventative healthcare like weight loss and smoking cessation programs have a direct benefit on heart disease and cancer. Recurrent monitoring via teleconsultations can be enough to track progress and ensure that the treatment goes as planned. 

Medication Management

It’s a big issue, especially among seniors – older adults are more likely to forget to take their medications. Providers can use telemedicine solutions to monitor when and if their patients took medicine. It decreases hospital readmissions and improves medication compliance.

School-Based Telehealth

Some school districts have embraced telemedicine technology and teamed up with local doctors to conduct remote visits. Based on the examined symptoms and the overall urgency, doctors can advise parents about the correct next steps in terms of treatment. 

Intensive care unit (NICU/ICU) 

Telemedicine can be applied in different ways in the NICU/ICU. One use case is to observe the baby from different angles by using an HD webcam or provide counseling from rare specialists for serious conditions. Physicians at another hospital can examine high-risk infants by simply viewing the video in real-time. Such solutions decrease the need to transfer infants to another hospital, which is expensive and time-consuming.

NIX Case Study: Telemedicine Mobile App for Online Consultations

Our client is an internet company that creates intelligent products and services powered by machine learning. The NIX team created a mobile application that allows getting affordable, real-time health advice from medical experts round-a-clock using an internet connection. 

What is telemedicine and telehealth

NIX developed a telemedicine application that offers consultation with medical experts of diverse specialties with no need in visiting hospitals – the user’s request gets a response here and now. This solution enhances physician-patient communication and engagement.

You can read the full case here.

What to Consider Before Developing a Telemedicine Solution

If you are considering entering the healthcare market with an on-demand telemedicine solution, there are a few things you keep in mind before setting up. 

Security

According to an IBM report, the average cost of a healthcare data breach reaches $7.13 million in lawsuits. It should be your top priority considering the healthcare domain vulnerability with the constantly growing amount of personal data. Teleconsultations and any vulnerable data should be stored in secure storage with only authorized access and protected from outside interferences. Therefore, by developing a secure platform or application, you assure the safe processing of confidential data and protect your organization from penalties.

High-load and Scalability

When developing a telemedicine solution, it’s essential to keep in mind that the number of specialists and patients can grow and ensure that the system will be stable enough to maintain high load from many concurrent users. Particularly considering that the quality of the doctor’s work, and therefore the person’s health, may depend on it. 

Physicians and Consultations

It’s important to find specialists that will cover the needs of your future patients and determine the terms of collaboration with them. Most likely, you can find a physician consultant who will be on the team, select doctors, train, and evaluate them.

No less important is the thought-through business process – how and under what scenario the physicians will conduct consultations, consultation duration, in what cases the patients will be sent to an offline doctor, and other terms of work. 

Compatibility with Existing Software and Hardware

Telemedicine software is regularly used concurrently with other applications. Their connection enables a powerful symbiosis that automates physician-patient interactions and the treatment process. Therefore you need to ensure the solution smoothly integrates with other tools your organization currently uses. 

More information on best practices for healthcare application development you can find here.

Conclusion

Telemedicine and telehealth are changing the way health professionals and patients communicate and interact. The benefits are evident and manifold, and many organizations have already embraced this new way of providing health assistance. In fact, according to the American Telemedicine Association, close to half of all US hospitals have already implemented telemedicine in some way in their workflow. 

At NIX, we know how telemedicine works, how to build on-demand telemedicine applications, and provide healthcare organizations around the world with market-ready solutions to compete in the market. 

Contact us, if you want to streamline workflow and enhance patient care while saving costs and automating the organization’s processes.

Mobile Development Services

Telemedicine: How it Works and Benefits for Your Business
Natalie Tkachenko Healthcare Software Solutions Consultant at NIX

Natalie is a HIPAA-certified expert with high-grade knowledge in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries with 5+ years of experience. She helps CIOs, CTOs of medical organizations, and founders of agile healthtech startups get the most valuable tech solutions for fundamental digital reinforcement in patient care, automation of operational processes, and overall business progress.

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