Telehealth: The Complete Guide to the Next Medical Revolution

Telehealth is on its way to revolutionizing the healthcare system, thanks to digital technology, robotics, and a range of other new technological changes. 

In this guide, we’ll examine telehealth from top to bottom, exploring:

  • What telehealth is
  • How telehealth differs from telemedicine and telecare
  • The benefits and drawbacks of telehealth
  • Why telehealth promises to change the healthcare for the better
  • How organizations can implement telehealth programs

To start off, let’s look at the most basic definitions of telehealth, as well as a few other important concepts.

Telehealth: Important Definitions and Key Concepts

Telehealth is the entire scope of business functions dedicated to supporting remote healthcare services.

These can include:

  • IT. As telehealth becomes more accepted and more normal, the role of IT in health care will expand. IT, naturally, plays a fundamental role in telehealth, though in most cases, the actual telemedicine solutions will be provided by third-party software vendors.
  • Digital training. Successful software implementation requires, among other things, effective software training solutions. When implementing telehealth software, for example, providers must not only train employees on how to use that software, they must ensure that patients can use it efficiently.
  • Patient relations. Relationships with patients will naturally change as the healthcare model evolves. This means that customer service roles must also adapt in order to support these new service models.
  • Administrative functions. Organizations that develop telemedicine functions will naturally need internal administrative support functions. These can include administrative support units that are solely dedicated to telehealth programs, as well as existing administrative staff within individual departments.

Just as importantly, telehealth embraces other remote healthcare fields, such as telemedicine, telecare, mHealth, and eHealth.

Though the differences between these terms may seem confusing at first glance, there are differences. These terms have been used for a number of years, though some of them are more common than others. 

“Telehealth” and “telemedicine,” for example, are more widely used than the others, as is evidenced by their Google Trends search history. 

The disparity became most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which saw a spike in the popularity of these two terms. 

The difference in meaning is important to understand, since each has its own specific meaning and use case.

Telemedicine

Telemedicine specifically refers to remote clinical care.

This can include:

  • Real-time remote consultations with physicians. The image most of us have when we think of telemedicine is probably related to this concept: namely, online video consultations with a provider. Though this is only one facet of telemedicine, it is an important one, since it enables physicians to provide convenient care to patients who are located at a distance.
  • Remote patient monitoring. Remote patient monitoring systems are tools that track specific health signals, such as patient vital signs or patient movements. Sensors, wearable devices, and other technology can all be integrated into a telemedicine solution. These systems can then keep track of patient health, provide automated alerts, and keep physicians informed about patients’ status.
  • Receiving specialized care in smaller clinical settings. To receive treatment from specialized providers, patients typically need to visit that specialist’s location. However, this can be problematic when patients are not located nearby. Patients that live in rural environments, for example, may be required to travel great distances to receive certain kinds of care. But with the right technology, this can be avoided: smaller clinics can connect to specialized providers, then treat patients locally based on that specialist’s recommendations.
  • Efficient, secure health information systems. Patient information is strictly protected by federal laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). On the one hand, this law guarantees the security and privacy of patient information. But it can also be a source of inefficiency, since medical records are often stored locally and only transferred with patients’ permission. Modern technology, though, allows for the secure and efficient transmission of this information, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of care.

Telemedicine is one of the main areas of focus when it comes to remote healthcare services, for many reasons which should be self-evident.

However, as mentioned, it is only one of several disciplines that fall within the domain of telehealth in general.

Telecare

Telecare refers to the use of remote patient monitoring technology to provide remote supervision and care.

In general, telecare means:

  • Monitoring patient data, such as vital signs or movements, in real-time. Wearable devices, such as pendants or smartwatches, can track vital signs or patient movements, which allows for passive monitoring at a distance. These automated systems can help healthcare providers maintain supervision of their patient populations, without needing to provide continual staff support.
  • Providing on-demand care when needed. Constant supervision may not always be necessary for patients, but there are certain patients that may need occasional on-demand care. Telecare devices usually incorporate some means of contacting providers at a moment’s notice, so that health care professionals can respond in short order.
  • Automated monitoring and alerts. One of the biggest benefits associated with remote monitoring is the ability to automatically trigger alerts or notifications based on certain criteria. For instance, if patients do not return to bed by a specific time or if vital signs show abnormalities, telecare providers can be automatically notified by the system.

This type of remote supervision can be extremely beneficial for certain patient populations, such as seniors or disabled patients. 

Telecare provides a number of benefits, both for patients and providers alike, as we will see below.

mHealth and eHealth 

These terms have also become more common in recent years, though as we saw above, they are less commonly used than “telemedicine” or “telehealth.”

The distinction between the two is minor:

  • mHealth refers to mobile-enabled telehealth solutions, such as mobile apps that track health signals or connect patients with physicians
  • eHealth refers more generally to any health services that are enabled, facilitated, and delivered through electronic means

While these distinctions may be important to some individuals, particularly to healthcare providers, it is worth noting that many people use these terms interchangeably.

As the industry continues to evolve, the terms themselves will continue to evolve, and there may be some confusion or conflation of the terms. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Telehealth

Healthcare providers around the world are becoming more interested in telehealth and telemedicine solutions. But since the field is so new, there are a number of questions that commonly arise – here are three of the most common:

Which types of providers can benefit from telehealth solutions?

There are several scenarios where telehealth can be beneficial for organizations.

For instance:

  • Specialized care providers can provide treatment to patients via remote clinics. Specialized care providers are often concentrated in urban areas or large medical centers. However, not all patients live close to specialized care providers. And this inconvenience can not only be frustrating, it can also impact their engagement levels and ultimately the quality of their care. With the right technology, though, specialized providers can provide many services directly through smaller, non-specialized clinics.
  • Consultations and evaluations that don’t require detailed evaluation can be performed online. Not all consultations require in-person visits. Many types of follow-up appointments, for instance, only require verbal consultations with a physician. And doctors may even allow patients to perform certain medical evaluations at their home – if those patients have access to the right equipment.
  • Providers that only need to monitor patients’ health and vital signs, without providing ongoing supervision. There are a large number of scenarios where patients may only need monitoring, rather than constant supervision and in-person care. Patients who are rehabilitating from an injury, for instance, may require long-term monitoring, without requiring ongoing treatment.

In time, technological capabilities will continue to grow, which means that more and more healthcare providers will be able to benefit from telemedicine programs.

What is the ROI of building a telemedicine program?

The profitability and performance of a telemedicine program will depend on many things, including:

  • The provider in question. A specialist, such as an oncologist, that operates out of a large medical facility will likely be the one providing long-distance consultations and care – either directly to patients through real-time telemedicine or via smaller clinics.
  • The type of services they provide to their patients. Some types of medical treatment are more conducive to remote care than others. Dentistry, for example, would be less suitable for remote care than psychiatry or certain types of senior care. 
  • The patient population. Not all patients can be treated remotely … and not all patients want to be treated remotely. Along with the other factors mentioned here, the patient population will determine the viability of telehealth solutions.
  • The current state of technology. Technology itself drives digital transformation in healthcare, and the state of that technological development will determine what is possible in telehealth. The more that technology advances, the more telehealth solutions a provider can offer.

To estimate the ROI of these programs, organizations should evaluate their current operations, potential applications of telemedicine, and the potential impacts.

If organizational leaders choose to adopt telehealth solutions, they can then measure those projections against the actual performance of the solution.

How can an organization get started in telehealth?

Telehealth may very well become a standard part of medical treatment options in the coming years.

For that reason, many organizations are choosing to adopt healthcare solutions now.

Providers that choose to move forward with telehealth efforts should implement structured organizational change efforts. These strategic efforts should focus on steps such as the following:

  • Evaluate the potential impact of adding telehealth programs
  • Assess the current state of the organization
  • Choose the right technology
  • Train employees and patients
  • Test, implement, and optimize

As with any other organizational change effort, it is important to focus not just on technology adoption or business process changes, but also on people.

Since individual employees are the ones driving the change, it is important that organizations motivate, engage, and train employees – otherwise they might resist change and negatively impact the change effort.

The Importance of Telehealth in an Evolving World

Telehealth and telemedicine solutions will become more common in the coming years, since they provide overwhelming benefits to both patients and healthcare organizations. 

Benefits for Patients

The benefits of a telehealth solution will depend on the type of telehealth solution being discussed. 

For instance, the general benefits of telemedicine can include:

  • Greater convenience. The ability to receive care at home or at a local clinic is far more convenient than traveling a great distance to see healthcare providers. Convenience becomes more of an issue for patients that live far from urban areas, as well as for patients that cannot travel easily.
  • Easier access to specialized care. Access to specialized care providers can make a world of difference for patients’ well-being and even their quality of life. With telemedicine, health care providers can extend the reach of their services and improve the quality of life for their patient populations, no matter where they live.
  • Improved satisfaction and sentiment. Patients that can access more affordable, convenient healthcare solutions will naturally be happier. This can improve the relationships they have with physicians, nurses, and staff – and it can also improve engagement and the reputation of the organization.
  • More affordable healthcare costs. Since providing remote care costs less for healthcare providers, these savings can be rolled over to help reduce patient healthcare costs. Given the high prices associated with healthcare, these savings can go a long way towards improving patient satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately their well-being.
  • Better quality healthcare. Though telemedicine itself is not inherently “better” than in-person treatment, improved patient engagement and easier access to care can directly impact patients’ health. Having access to a combination of remote and in-person care, in other words, will help to increase patients’ engagement and the quality of their care.

However, more specific types of telemedicine will offer more specific types of benefits. Telecare, for example, is targeted towards certain patient populations that require a certain level of care.

The benefits of telecare can include:

  • A greater level of independence, freedom, and dignity. Having to rely on others for everyday care can feel very debilitating and it can have a significantly negative impact on a patient’s dignity. Certain telemedicine solutions, such as telecare, can improve patients’ quality of life, increase their level of freedom, and help them live more independently.
  • Affordability and convenience. Hiring a permanent caregiver or living in a senior care facility can be extremely costly. And it can also be very inconvenient for patients’ families. When telecare is a feasible option, it increases convenience for patients, while saving them money at the same time.
  • Decreased stress. The difficulties associated with continual care can be very taxing for both patients and their families. Another benefit of reduced healthcare is the decreased level of stress associated with providing ongoing care – yet another factor that can increase the overall well-being of patients. 
  • A lower healthcare burden for family members. Family members often take on many burdens of everyday care for elderly or disabled patients. Telecare can significantly reduce this burden, as well as its associated stresses and costs. The result: happier patients and less stress for family members.
  • An improved quality of life. Ultimately, telecare can dramatically improve patients’ quality of life. Because they can receive high-quality care on demand – while still living more independent, dignified lives – they will have a better quality of life overall. 

Advantages such as these are quite compelling and, in general, vastly outweigh the downsides to telehealth services – especially when combined with the numerous benefits that healthcare providers gain when they offer telehealth and telemedicine.

Benefits for Healthcare Providers

Healthcare organizations can also benefit from the adoption of telehealth technology and practices.

Among the most important benefits for providers:

  • New revenue opportunities. Telemedicine opens up a number of possible revenue streams – telecare, for instance, can allow providers to offer an entirely new service to certain segments of its patient population. Specialized care providers can also expand their patient base by extending services through smaller clinics.
  • Increased patient engagement. Patients are more likely to engage with their healthcare providers when treatment is more convenient, efficient, and affordable. This can decrease the costs associated with no-shows or disengaged patients, which can fundamentally improve the organization’s bottom line.
  • Decreased costs. Providing remote care costs significantly less than providing on-site services. Savings can come from a reduction in staff costs, equipment costs, and other costs associated with in-person care. These savings can then be rolled over to increase profit margins and decreasing prices for patients – which can, in turn, increase their engagement.
  • More simplified, efficient workflows. In telemedicine, employee productivity relies on effective software training. However, with the right training, workflows can be streamlined and simplified, allowing doctors to treat more patients in less time, at a lower cost. 
  • A competitive advantage. Today, not very many providers are offering telemedicine options to their patients. Providers who do choose to provide remote clinical services, therefore, can gain a foothold in an emerging marketplace – one that will soon become the norm.
  • The ability to improve the quality of care for patients. Aside from the numerous business advantages that telehealth offers, the bottom line for many medical professionals is that they can improve the quality of their patients’ lives. This is, after all, one of the main reasons why healthcare professionals enter this field.

As mentioned, the benefits offered by telehealth solutions far outweigh the drawbacks, which is why so many organizations and patients are eager to adopt these innovative healthcare trends.

However, there are still limitations and considerations to be aware of. 

Challenges, Drawbacks, and Limitations of Telehealth Solutions

Understanding the challenges and limitations associated with different types of telehealth services is essential for providing the best care possible.

Here are a few considerations that both organizations and patients should be aware of when evaluating telehealth and telemedicine options:

  • Only certain types of care can be delivered remotely. As mentioned, only certain types of clinical services can or should be provided remotely. However, it should be noted that as technology advances, the possibilities for remote treatment continue to increase.
  • Over-reliance on telehealth can be detrimental to patient relationships and their well-being. Telehealth is many things, but it is certainly not a cure-all. It should not be relied upon too heavily, since over-reliance on telemedicine can actually be counter-productive – doctors that rarely see their patients, for instance, may miss things that can only be seen through in-person assessments.
  • Technology adoption requires training and digital literacy. The adoption of new technology can be stressful for both healthcare workers and patients. After all, new technology requires training and a certain amount of digital skill. For this reason, any healthcare organization interested in telehealth should implement digital adoption strategies aimed at effectively onboarding and training new users.

In short, remote patient care can be a very useful avenue for treatment, but it has limitations and specific use cases.

As long as these are understood and accounted for, healthcare providers will be able to substantially improve the quality of the care they provide their patients.

Telehealth Technology 101

Telehealth is a result of digital transformation within the healthcare industry.

Technology, therefore, is the catalyst that is fueling this trend. Healthcare organizations in particular should have a solid understanding of this technology, so that they can invest wisely and leverage that technology to its fullest extent.

Remote Monitoring Systems

As mentioned above, the ability to monitor patients remotely is one of the core features associated with telemedicine. 

  • Vital signs
  • Patient movements
  • Interactions with specific types of equipment

These systems are specifically designed to evaluate patients’ health from a distance, making them useful for long-term telecare, short-term remote consults, or anything in between. 

Patient Health Information Systems

Electronic health records have become the standard way to store patient information in the digital age.

Systems such as these are vital for the successful operation of today’s healthcare industry, and they are even more essential for telehealth and telemedicine.

To provide remote treatment, medical providers need functions that include:

  • The ability to store medical information
  • Secure, encrypted transmission
  • A reliable connection to other medical providers

These functions allow healthcare specialists to access and transmit current medical information, while still abiding by HIPAA’s privacy and security regulations.

Telecommunications Technology

Another essential technology that underpins telehealth solutions is telecommunications technology itself, which can include:

  • Mobile apps
  • Real-time video and audio communications tools
  • Communication software specific to the medical industry
  • High-speed communications infrastructure

As mentioned above, privacy and security regulations are quite strict with regards to patient information. For that reason, health professionals often use software platforms that are specifically designed for the healthcare industry.

Emerging Technology

Digital transformation in healthcare is fueled by innovative new technology, such as…

  • Artificial intelligence (AI). AI in healthcare is already being used to transform the medical industry. For instance, pattern recognition and image recognition are being used to identify tumors. These AI-based applications are far more efficient and far less costly than human radiologists. Other use cases of AI, particularly in telehealth, can include virtual assistants, which can be used to perform customer service tasks or administrative duties.
  • Big data. Big data refers to the use of massive data sets to perform analyses and other data-driven business processes. Since data is the backbone of digital technology, it should come as no surprise that the effective use of that data is essential to the use of digital technology in healthcare. Big data, for instance, is required for applications such as automated tumor recognition, mentioned above.
  • Robotics. Today, telemedicine usually refers to online consultations, mobile apps, and other applications mentioned above. However, in the near future, we can expect to see robotics play a role in remote care. For instance, advances in robotics allow surgeons to operate on patients remotely, which presents yet another example of how specialists can provide treatment to patients at a distance.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT). IoT refers to the integration of sensors into all manner of devices, from smartphones to household appliances. In the case of telemedicine, this integration is essential for providers that want to offer remote care to their patients. Remote patient monitoring systems and remote surgical systems, for instance, depend on the integration of hardware, software, and a reliable high-speed internet connection. 

The digital healthcare revolution is far from over, and we will certainly see more transformations within the world of healthcare. 

As more of these technological innovations take hold, we can expect to see a healthcare landscape that looks very different from today’s.

Though the widespread implementation of such technologies are still a ways off, providers that begin implementing these solutions today will get a head start on their competition – and help to ensure their competitive position in age of digital healthcare.

Why Organizations Need a Telehealth Adoption Strategy

Adopting new technology is not straightforward.

Implementing new software involves many moving pieces at many different levels. Any healthcare organization that wants to implement change, for instance, must create a change management plan that accounts for…

  • Organizational leaders
  • Physicians and nurses
  • Individual employees
  • Existing business processes
  • The tools and technology currently in use
  • Government regulations
  • Inertia 
  • The organization’s culture

These constraints explain, in part, why digital transformation in the medical industry is slower than in other areas, such as the private sector.

However, despite these challenges, it is certainly possible – and desirable – to make changes that improve the quality of healthcare.

When initiating any type of organizational change, it is important to take a structured approach to change management that is centered around individual change, not just processes.

After all, employees are the ones that help an organization to function, and without their support, change initiatives cannot succeed.

How to Successfully Implement Change

Change management is a discipline dedicated to ensuring the successful implementation of organizational changes. There are a number of different approaches to managing change, but, as mentioned, most of these focus around people, not processes.

This is also true for change management in healthcare, which often incorporates much of the same research and ideas as change management in the private sector.

For this reason, almost all change management models tend to focus on motivating, engaging, and enabling employees.

Common steps in these change models include:

  • Building awareness of the need for change. To earn employees’ support for a change proposal, it is important to begin by explaining the reasons for the change and how it will impact them.
  • Obtaining buy-in at all levels. Without buy-in and support from all stakeholders, including employees and executives, a change program will suffer significant setbacks – and it can even fail entirely.
  • Motivating employees. If employees are not engaged, they will not proactively support a program, which is why change managers must come up with creative ways to motivate workers.
  • Providing workers with the right tools and the right skills. Deploying telehealth software is not enough to ensure its successful adoption. Employees must be trained on that software and be able to demonstrate that they have the skills to use it productively.
  • Reinforcing change to ensure that it sticks. Habits are hard to break, which is why employers must reinforce organizational changes through regular performance reviews, recognition, and so forth.

Though the exact steps may differ from model to model, the underlying themes and ideas remain the same: enable change by enabling and supporting employees.

The Future of Telehealth and Telemedicine

What does the future hold for telehealth and telemedicine?

In the coming years, we will certainly see more telemedicine, telehealth, and telecare programs cropping up around the globe. 

Though these new technologies and healthcare trends will certainly take time to achieve widespread adoption, we can certainly expect to see extensive changes to the healthcare industry in the coming years.

Telehealth, combined with many other emerging technologies and trends, will certainly have a disruptive impact on the entire medical field – and some of those effects will be negative. 

However, at the end of the day, these technological advances promise to have a net positive impact on the industry as a whole … and, most importantly, on people’s health and well-being.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.