Telehealth: Potential & Promise

E-records and video chats are only the beginning

Given recent events, finding common ground in a discussion over healthcare policy might sound like a fool’s errand.

But there’s one area that is garnering strong support from all sides – telehealth.  And its popularity continues to grow. For example, Kaiser Permanente, which began using telehealth on a national basis in 2006, reports that 52 percent of its patients (approximately 59 million) received telehealth treatment in 2016.

Telehealth is fast becoming a priority throughout the industry. In its “2017 U.S. Telemedicine Industry Benchmark Survey,” released last month, REACH Health, an enterprise telemedicine software company, reported that 51 percent of executives and caregivers surveyed considered telehealth a high priority. Another 36 percent said it was a medium priority. Only 13 percent ranked telehealth as a low priority.

For healthcare communicators, it is important for us to have an understanding of key issues impacting our industry – and how they are likely to affect our own organizations, partners, clients, patients, and others that play a role in our business or service enterprises.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) defines telehealth as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote clinical healthcare, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

The Potential of Telehealth

Exponents in telehealth believe it will help point the way to achieving a number of long-sought goals, including:

  • Improving access to healthcare
  • Making healthcare delivery more efficient
  • Enhancing providers’ ability to coordinate care and securely share patient information
  • Reducing hospitalizations and in-person clinic visits by enabling patients to be monitored or receive care and counseling “distantly” without having to make a physical visit to a doctor’s office or hospital (something that is particularly important in under-served rural areas)
  • Reducing costs – because telehealth services can be delivered more efficiently

Telehealth and Telemedicine

While people may use the terms telehealth and telemedicine interchangeably, there are distinctions that can be made. Telehealth is a broad term that includes a wide range of remote healthcare services and technologies, including non-clinical services such as providing healthcare information, education and training for health professionals and health consumers. Telehealth also includes health systems management via internet and telecommunications applications.

By comparison, telemedicine is a more clinically focused subset of telehealth that primarily focuses on the use of electronic communications and software applications to provide clinical services to patients without an in-person visit.

Embracing the Future

Recently a number of healthcare providers have announced that they are actively adopting and investing in telehealth services.

Earlier this year, The Philadelphia Business Journal announced a new joint effort between Griswold Home Care, (Full disclosure: A SPRYTE client) a home care provider with over 200 office locations in 33 states, and telehealth services provider Teladoc. The aim: to give Griswold clients 24/7 access to talk to a doctor or get a diagnosis over the telephone. The Teladoc physicians can diagnose and recommend treatment for a range of medical conditions, including colds and flu, allergies, bronchitis, rashes, and respiratory or sinus ailments, as well as provide short-term prescription refills.

Earlier this month, NJBIZ reported that Vanguard Medical Group had partnered with virtual care company Zipnosis to create a new online diagnosis and treatment service that a Vanguard spokesman described as “the wave of the future.” The new program comes on the heels of recently enacted New Jersey legislation (S291) that authorizes healthcare providers to engage in telemedicine and telehealth as a type of treatment covered by insurance.

Increased Government Support

It might sound surprising given the recent volatile debate over national healthcare reform, but support for telehealth is something on which members of both parties have expressed enthusiastic support. At the end of September, Senate Republicans and Democrats unanimously passed legislation called the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic Care (CHRONIC) Act of 2017.

The purpose of the CHRONIC Act is to enable Medicare-accountable care organizations to expand the utilization of telehealth services, incorporate wider telehealth benefits in Medicare Advantage plans and expand the use of virtual care for stroke and dialysis patients.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) the prime sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would “improve disease management, lower Medicare costs and streamline care coordination services.”

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Oregon), lauded the bill for placing a stronger focus on primary care by providing “more care at home and less in institutions. It will expand the use of lifesaving technology,” he said.

A Promising Future

In recent years there has been a continuing evolution of the healthcare provider model into one that is more individual patient-focused and results-oriented. Telehealth is helping to support this evolution by providing a practical means for physicians to treat and counsel patients at a distance, efficiently, economically, and in a collaborative way with fellow medical professionals.

Telehealth has been, and will continue to serve a key role in fulfilling the promise of these initiatives, particularly as healthcare providers’ interest in deinstitutionalized care models such as community-based urgent care facilities, virtual medical centers, mobile health programs and remote clinical services continues to grow.

As healthcare communicators, we’re accustomed to serving many masters – from hospital administrators to clinicians to volunteers to patients to government regulators, and more. As telehealth continues to roll forward, it will be more important and more challenging than ever to work with these often widespread and disparate groups to ensure that your messaging is clear and consistent across all communications channels, and that interested parties have access to timely and accurate information.