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What Is Telemedicine, and How Has It Changed the Healthcare Industry?

Telemedicine uses the internet to connect patients and care providers, allowing for more immediacy, convenience, and personalization of healthcare services. It introduces new possibilities to traditional healthcare systems, which affects the popularization of telemedicine and other areas of telehealth.

Telehealth versus telemedicine

Telehealth is the broad category of technologies and services aimed at improving healthcare delivery. Care provider training, remote administration, online medical education, and promotion of healthy living all fall under the telehealth umbrella.

Telemedicine, on the other hand, only involves clinical services provided remotely through technological solutions, such as secure video and audio calls. Practical applications of telemedicine include remote follow-up visits, as well as long-distance management of chronic conditions and medication dosage.

Telemedicine now and in the past

Telemedicine has been used to improve healthcare for over 50 years. The first successful attempts at sending medical information via telephone lines were made in the 1940s. In 1959, clinicians at the University of Nebraska used emerging film technology to build a two-way television connection – first on campus, and later to provide video consultations at a state hospital.

Telemedicine became especially popular in remote rural areas, where small populations had limited access to healthcare. The 1960s and 1970s saw investments in telemedicine research from major US governmental organizations, including NASA and the Department of Defense. Microwave technology was used to transmit X-ray photos, electrocardiographs, and other medical information. Research in the field gained popularity in universities and research centers.

Today, video consultations are becoming a regular part of many physicians’ practice. Though telemedicine presents a huge potential for improving healthcare services in rural areas, urban residents make use of it more often. Forecasts indicate that the telehealth market will reach revenues of over $13 billion by 2023.

The market’s perspective on telemedicine – the motors behind the trends

Healthcare systems around the world are facing more and more challenges. Rising costs of care delivery, provider shortages, declining health outcomes among patients, increasing numbers of patients with chronic diseases, and more aggressive competition are factors that the traditional healthcare model isn’t entirely equipped to deal with. A lot of these challenges can be mitigated by telemedicine, and the market is taking notice.

In the USA, more than 50% of the population suffers from at least one chronic illness. The cost of treatment is significant, especially for less affluent patients, which negatively affects individual health outcomes. Fifty-nine million Americans live in rural areas without access to specialty care providers, or even to primary care providers. Both of these groups are in need of better care – and telemedicine can be the solution to their problems.

Why telemedicine is the future – the benefits

Telemedicine brings a number of benefits to the table, from cost optimization to better care for specific groups of patients, such as those with mental health issues. Some of these improvements can already be witnessed around the world, and regulations are being updated to accommodate more. 

Healthcare cost savings

To reduce costs for healthcare institutions, telemedicine can be used to optimize the use of resources and staff distribution. With virtual visits, providers won’t need office staff or space equipped to host multiple waiting patients. Instead, they’ll be able to use smaller spaces effectively for those patients who can truly benefit from in-person check-ups.

Patient no-shows can amount to a big impact on a provider’s budget. Telemedicine reduces the impact by allowing for shorter visit time slots and limiting disruption to work. For larger institutions, fewer unnecessary office and ER visits, as well as hospital admissions, can free up resources needed elsewhere. Administrative work automation can be another big step. In an average physician’s office, 31% of staff fill administrative roles.

Better access to care

Telemedicine gives patients more equality in access to healthcare. Patients with rare conditions can receive top-quality care regardless of their geographical location. Because online communication can be very quick, urgent cases can be addressed without delay.

People with immunity disorders or other conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting bacterial infections may be reluctant to frequent hospitals. Virtual visits to the doctor can be a much safer option for both patients and medical staff. Finally, better access to care means improved healthcare outcomes in the long run. This translates to a lessened burden for care providers, allowing them to do better work. 

More consistent patient engagement with a consumer-centric approach

Patients’ busy lives often prevent them from receiving appropriate care. They avoid long waiting lists and may not wish to commute for follow-ups. Because of scheduling conflicts, patients can be forced to continue treatment with different providers, negatively affecting their quality and continuity of care.

Telemedicine solves this problem by putting more control into the hands of patients. They are able to pick the right provider, arrange appointments that fit their schedules, and gain access to more information regarding their health. This consumer-centric shift in patients’ approach to healthcare means more competition between providers. Clinics have to provide better services to meet customers’ needs.

Better patient-physician relationships

More consistency in showing up for follow-up visits, as well as patients’ willingness to seek out preventative care, can have a major positive impact on care quality. Automated or partially automated remote patient monitoring shortens reaction times in urgent situations.

With improved care comes better outcomes, which in turn helps build trust for healthcare providers. Happier patients are more likely to stay in regular contact with their physicians, allowing for more specialized care thanks to an improved flow of information. Patients’ overall satisfaction can also benefit physicians’ psychological well-being, preventing burnout or job dissatisfaction.

More efficient clinical trials

Finding enough participants to run a successful clinical trial may not be easy. Thanks to telemedicine, more trials can be conducted virtually – that is, with participants in their homes, wearing remote monitoring devices. Such devices can gather higher quality data, as they register deviations from baseline readings and track those metrics over time. Because recruiters aren’t limited to one geographical area, more people are likely to join virtual clinical trials.

The reduced spread of infectious diseases

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all very conscious of the importance of preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Aside from new viruses, more antibiotic-resistant bacteria are cropping up, making outbreaks in hospitals and other healthcare facilities increasingly likely. Telemedicine helps address this problem by safely connecting various facilities to infectious disease experts, and by limiting the amount of time patients need to spend in hospitals.

Enhanced collaboration

Telemedicine has the potential to enhance communication between nurses and physicians, as well as between physicians and specialists. Practitioners will gain access to expertise in other fields – such as oncology or behavioral health – without generating much extra cost. And it’s very convenient to consult with a colleague via a laptop or phone. Some programs involve entire boards of specialists reviewing complicated cases.

Easier rehabilitation

Treatment in a hospital should largely be reduced to a minimum. It puts a strain on healthcare facilities, keeps patients in an unfamiliar environment, and can be very costly. Because of this, rehabilitation continued at home can be a better option. Doctors can follow up with the patient through video calls or photos, providing appropriate care and guidance without inconveniencing the patient.

Conclusion

Telemedicine is a quickly growing market. Healthcare professionals have been using telemedicine’s benefits for years, and experimenting with expanding those benefits to new areas. More and more patients are responding favorably when offered remote healthcare solutions.

In BMC’s study, “Patient preferences for direct-to-consumer telemedicine services”, respondents willing to see their care provider through telemedical solutions were in the majority at 52%. Some (15%) claimed they would consider leaving their current provider for one that offered telemedicine as an option. It’s clear that healthcare organizations will be interested in meeting this demand.

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