Telehealth is defined by the American Hospital Association as the ability to connect “patients to vital health care services through videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults and wireless communications.” 

The idea behind telehealth is that by increasing access to physicians, specialists and health care professionals, patients receive “the right care, at the right place, at the right time.” 

Televisits can be conducted via smartphone or personal computers and are especially effective for less complex visits that do not require in-office appointments

There are, as with any service, pros and cons with telehealth, as well as further research needed and impediments in the way before telehealth becomes mainstream. However, with increased awareness, need and support, the future of telehealth is bright, and understanding how we can benefit from the combination of health care services and technology empowers us all to seek out the best services possible, either here at home or on the other side of a computer screen. 

Advantages

Broadens Horizons

Telemedicine enables physicians and providers to broaden their geographic reach, enabling them to reach and connect with patients who live in rural or distant regions. This is especially helpfully in terms of remote patient monitoring, when patients may be able to visit in person with a provider for an initial appointment but be monitored remotely through telehealth follow-ups. 

According to Robin Warshaw with the Association of American Medical Colleges (2017), “Physician shortages contribute to many rural health difficulties. Primary care doctors are stretched thin, and specialists, including mental health and substance abuse providers, are a rarity.” 

Cuts Costs

Financial costs aren’t the only costs associated with doctor’s visits. Patients lose time as well as transportation expense when visiting doctors, particularly when traveling long distances. This can be challenging when patients must take off time from work, must travel from remote regions or must have someone accompany them to an appointment. Chronic conditions requiring frequent appointments can take a toll on patients in terms of financial, physical and mental well-being. Virtual health visits also cut down on late or no-show visits, as patients have fewer constraints on their ability to meet appointment times. Telehealth visits can help mitigate all of these issues and reduce the amount of time and expense of traditional, in-person visits. 

For doctors, telehealth services can cut costs by streamlining appointment bookings through virtual systems as well as built-in billing systems, dramatically reducing their expenses and the amount of time and money spent sending paper bills via mail. 

Limits Exposure

With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the forefront of the news, exposure to germs and infection in medical settings is a real concern for many patients, particularly those with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions. Virtual appointments and follow-ups can help avoid the spread of infectious diseases, like flu and coronavirus, and may be helpful in enabling early diagnosis as patients are more likely to seek care with the first signs of illness as televisits can be more convenient for the reasons discussed above. 

Disadvantages

Technology Glitches

With all the beauty and possibility of technology, there are always hiccups and glitches, which can be frustrating in many cases and overwhelming when it comes to our health. Inclement weather, loss of power or software issues can all cause delays with teleservices, and some patients struggle in obtaining strong wireless connections, particularly in the very rural areas providers most need to reach. Also, when adopting telemed services, providers must train staff to become proficient with services, which can be costly and challenging. Computer literacy on the part of the user is also an issue in some cases, particularly when a patient is ill. If technology issues are frustrating or confusing for a patient, traditional office visits may be more viable or having a loved one or caregiver available for support can help bridge the gap. 

Loss of Personal Connection

Some people, both providers and patients, fear a loss of personal connection while using telehealth services. There is no substitute for human touch and sitting with a person, in person, and getting to know a patient in ‘real life.’ One way to address this is for organizations to properly train physicians, nurses, social workers, clergy and other staff in how to have difficult, personal conversations with patients over virtual platforms. Still, for some, an in-patient visit can never be replaced. 

Suitability Struggles

Telehealth services and televisits are not suitable for all health-related cases. In many cases, patients will requires tests, swabs, x-rays or other treatments that are impossible to provide virtually. Thus, telemed services cannot fully supplant or replace in-person visits; however, doctors can order tests and follow-up treatments as necessary during virtual appointments. 

Obvious advantages in telehealth exist for many patients, particularly patients living in geographically isolated or rural areas. As this field continues to grow, challenges will inevitably need to be overcome, but there is hope that televisits and virtual health might fill gaps, reduce costs and broaden the base of service for many patients as well as providers. 

The Rising Cost of Health Care 

  • 5.5% – the rate at which national health spending is predicted to grow per year through 2027
  • $3.5 Trillion – the amount the U.S. spent on health expenditures in 2017, more than twice the amount of other developed countries 
  • 18% – the percent of U.S. GDP spent on health care 
  • $7 Billion – annual economic value of virtual health 
  • 58 million – the number of elderly and disabled persons currently served by Medicare, the largest federal health care program in the U.S. 
  • 77 million – the number of expected Medicare beneficiaries by the year 2028
  • $70 million – the amount provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2017

Around the World:

In other developed countries, spending per GDP on health care is often less than that of the United States. According to World Bank data:

  • 11.54% – France
  • 11.14% – Germany 
  • 10.53% – Canada 
  • 10.93% – Japan 
  • 9.22% – New Zealand 
  • 10.50% – Norway 
  • 12.25% – Switzerland