Telemedicine: Supporting, Not Substituting Healthcare

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By Joe McErlane

In today’s current COVID world, many industries are impacted by the pandemic, both good and bad. Several have seen a wave of workers move to remote work for the first time. Healthcare, of course, is an industry at the front and center of this pandemic. From the frontline nurses and doctors to the physicians trying to keep people healthy. But healthcare is one industry that you aren’t able to work remotely. Or is it? Enter… telemedicine. 

What is Telemedicine? 

Telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to provide care to a patient at a distant site, according to AAFP

The “Red Tape” of Telemedicine 

Telemedicine isn’t a new concept, though the adoption of it has increased. NeoPath Health onsite clinics have seen usage go from non-existent to nearly 15% of current visits. The concept and practice have been around for well over a decade, but the pandemic helped decrease entry barriers.  

Before COVID-19, the “red tape” and legislation around telemedicine and telehealth were much more extensive. But those have since been loosened. Clinics were using pricey, secure platforms, and then the pandemic hit. In order to keep patients safely distanced while providing the care they needed, the strict regulations seem to dissipate. Healthcare still needed to happen, just six feet apart. 

So while telemedicine isn’t new, the one thing it needed to flourish was fewer restrictions, and that’s what has been provided. It’s hard to imagine that “post-COVID” those barriers will be reimplemented, at least not anytime soon. As you look at the system now, the “product” devolution makes it easier and more operationally efficient. We’ll continue to see this evolve and improve as time goes on, once the “dust settles” on this pandemic. 

The difference between telemedicine and telehealth

While these two terms, telemedicine and telehealth, are often used interchangeably, there are differences between the two. 

Telehealth: refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare technologies and services than telemedicine. In addition to clinical services, it can also include things like remote non-clinical services, like administrative meetings, provider training, and continuing medical education. According to the World Health Organization, Telehealth can help achieve universal health coverage by improving access for patients to quality, cost-effective health services wherever they may be. 

Telemedicine: on the other hand, telemedicine is more of a subset of telehealth. It refers to the provision of health care services over a distance through the use of telecommunications technology. This means it provides clinical services to patients without an in-person visit, via electronic communications and software—things like medication management, specialist consults, management of chronic conditions, and follow-up visits. 

Benefits of telemedicine 

Now that there are fewer restrictions on telemedicine and telehealth, people see the benefits of incorporating it- both on the patient side and the practitioner side. Here are just some of the benefits of telemedicine: 

Patients

  1. No missed work: Video visits can occur on breaks, before or after work, so there’s no need to take time off of work for doctor’s visits. 
  2. Cost savings and no commuting: You don’t have to worry about traffic or the time it takes getting to and from your doctor’s visits. You also eliminate the cost of travel, parking, childcare, and taking time off work, which can quickly add up. 
  3. Increases access to care: That distance and travel time we talked about? That can create a limitation for some people. Telemedicine helps to overcome geographic barriers. 
  4. Reduces childcare issues: No need to find alternative care or bring kids to the doctor’s office with you. 
  5. Access to specialists: In the past, you might have to travel a long way to see a specialist if you needed one. Telemedicine allows you to have access to the best without having to travel far to “see” them.  
  6. Less exposure to new illnesses: There isn’t a need to sit in a waiting room and be exposed to sick people. You can get the care you need without exposure.

Practitioners 

  1. Enhances face-to-face medicine: Telemedicine allows providers to continue to care for patients in-person while still providing the convenience and flexibility of seeing patients remotely. 
  2. Improves job satisfaction: Meeting with patients is made easier with telemedicine. Providers can use it to make it easier for themselves to balance work and family life. 
  3. Reduces practice overhead: Telemedicine and telehealth applications are low cost to implement, compared to expensive hospital systems. And with barriers to entry lowered, more systems are approved to use. 
  4. Advances new business models and reaches more patients: Telemedicine and telehealth help to advance consumer-based care. Clinicians can extend their patient base to help more people, extend hours, and create new models for patients. 
  5. Improves patient engagement: When patients can see their doctors more frequently without specific barriers, it is easier and more convenient for them to stay healthy and engaged in their health care. 

Support, not a substitute

While there are many benefits to telemedicine and telehealth, they are most certainly meant to support healthcare and the patient/practitioner relationship, not act as a replacement or substitute for it. Like with anything, there are limitations. Think of it like grocery shopping. You can go to the convenience store when you need a quick fix or just a few items. But you can create so many more meals and get a lot more ingredients if you go to the actual grocery store. Telemedicine is like that convenience store. It’s a short-term fix. It gets some, but not all of the job done. 

Diagnosis begins with a clinician looking into their patients’ eyes and not just via a webcam. There’s the emotion of it, the intentness and focus, and the interaction that’s needed. The ability for clinicians to decipher “is that why you’re really here?” So clinicians must find a way to strike a balance between virtual and in-person visits without sacrificing patient care and convenience. 

Future of Telemedicine 

In some ways, we’re seeing the future of telemedicine play out right now; we’re living it. It has increasing value and is being utilized much more than it ever was previously. That said, as far as telemedicine’s future is concerned, it won’t replace face-to-face; it will complement it. It will allow for a convenience that maybe wasn’t there before. Like with many things we see right now- Zoom and other tools used to replace (for now) meetings and gatherings, it’s technology. Technology is a convenience, it’s a tool, but it’s also not human. This new wave of telemedicine may have been a much-needed refresh to the healthcare system. It lowered barriers for patients, which should always be the objective, to make things easier for patients and provide the best care possible. At the end of the day, that’s what healthcare is all about—the human element. The connection – and we’re not just talking about your Wi-Fi. 

About Author: Joe McErlane is the founder and CEO of NeoPath Health, where he has worked to improve employee health for companies looking to control the spiraling cost of employee medical plans. NeoPath establishes and manages onsite clinics that improve care, reduce costs and attract and retain employees. 

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