Normally, doctors and other health care providers care for their patients in person at a facility such as a medical office, clinic, or hospital. But thanks to computers, smartphones, and other new digital technologies, medical professionals can now diagnose, treat, and oversee their patients' care virtually.
Telehealth is defined as the delivery of health care services at a distance through the use of technology. It can include everything from conducting medical visits over the computer, to monitoring patients' vital signs remotely. Its definition is broader than that of telemedicine, which only includes the remote delivery of health care. Telehealth also includes the training and continuing education of medical professionals.
Telehealth can be delivered in one of three ways:
- Synchronous—when the doctor communicates with the patient in real time via computer or telephone
- Asynchronous—when data, images, or messages are recorded to share with the doctor later
- Remote patient monitoring—when measurements such as weight or blood pressure are sent to the health care provider
Advantages of telehealth
Using technology to deliver health care has several advantages, including cost savings, convenience, and the ability to provide care to people with mobility limitations, or those in rural areas who don't have access to a local doctor or clinic. For these reasons, the use of telehealth has grown significantly over the last decade. Currently, 76 percent of hospitals in the U.S. connect doctors and patients remotely via telehealth, up from 35 percent a decade ago.
Telehealth has become even more essential during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Fears of spreading and catching the virus during in-person medical visits have led to a greater interest in, and use of, technology to provide and receive health care.
Almost three-quarters of Americans surveyed said the pandemic has made them more eager to try virtual care. And one in four Americans over age 50 said they'd had a virtual health care visit during the first three months of the pandemic, up from just four percent of older adults who'd had a remote visit the previous year.
What you can do with telehealth
All of the following activities and services are possible with the help of telehealth:
- Recording measurements like your weight, food intake, blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels either manually, or through a wearable device, and sending them to your doctor.
- Having a virtual visit with your doctor or a nurse over your computer or smartphone.
- Using an online portal to check your test results, request prescription refills, send your doctor a message, or schedule an appointment.
- Sharing information such as your test results, diagnoses, medications, and drug allergies with all of the providers you see.
- Coordinating care between your primary care provider and any specialists you visit—including the sharing of exam notes and test results between medical offices in different locations.
- Getting email or text reminders when you're due for mammograms, colonoscopies, and other screenings, or routine vaccinations.
- Monitoring older adults at home to make sure they are eating, sleeping, and taking their medications on schedule.
Downsides to telehealth
Telehealth offers a convenient and cost-effective way to see your doctor without having to leave your home, but it does have a few downsides.
- It isn't possible to do every type of visit remotely. You still have to go into the office for things like imaging tests and blood work, as well as for diagnoses that require a more hands-on approach.
- The security of personal health data transmitted electronically is a concern.
- While insurance companies are increasingly covering the cost of telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, some services may not be fully covered, leading to out-of-pocket costs.
Image: RichLegg/Getty Images
About the Author
Stephanie Watson, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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