What is telemedicine, why is it important, and how is it changing the healthcare industry? In this guide, we’ll explore telemedicine from top to bottom.
Among other things, this guide will explore:
- Why telemedicine is becoming so widespread
- The benefits and drawbacks of telemedicine
- Concerns and challenges associated with telemedicine
- The future of telemedicine
To start off, let’s explore the most basic question of all…
What Is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine refers to the use of telecommunications technology to evaluate and diagnose patients online.
The use of technology to enhance healthcare is certainly nothing new.
For decades, medical professionals have been:
- Attempting to provide medical care across long distances
- Transmitting medical information over various telecommunications networks
- Providing medical consultations and advice over the telephone
Medical professionals have always been searching for ways to enhance the level of care that they can provide to remote patients.
However, technological limitations have prevented the large-scale adoption of telemedicine. For instance, many patient diagnoses require specialized equipment and physical observation.
In recent years, however, those technological limitations are gradually decreasing, enabling doctors to provide even greater levels of care over the internet.
Below, we will examine telemedicine specialties in more detail.
Telemedicine FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
To gain a better understanding of telemedicine, let’s andswer some of the most commonly asked questions about this healthcare field.
Telemedicine vs. telehealth: what’s the difference?
Telemedicine refers to the use of telecommunications services to treat patients.
Telehealth is a more broad term that extends beyond clinical services to include related services and solutions, such as administrative services, digital training, and other areas that support telemedicine.
Both fields are closely linked and interdependent, but there is a subtle difference in meaning.
Healthcare organizations that are interested in telemedicine, therefore, should understand that difference.
What are the advantages of telemedicine?
Telemedicine offers a number of benefits, both for healthcare providers and for patients, which is why this field is continuing to grow year by year.
For patients, benefits include:
- Less interference with daily life. Doctor’s visits can take a significant amount of time out of one’s schedule. Travel times, wait times, and visits with the provider can all add up – and they can all take away from work or other life activities. Telemedicine can drastically reduce these numbers, helping patients stay focused on their own lives.
- No exposure to potentially contagious patients. Unfortunately, visiting a medical facility also means exposing oneself to other sick patients, some of whom may be contagious. Telemedicine, especially real-time telemedicine, helps to prevent this risk.
- Greater convenience. Even if a doctor’s visit does not directly interfere with one’s work or daily life, it is still an inconvenience. The convenience offered by telemedicine is much more appealing to patients, which can increase engagement and visitation rates.
- Greater privacy. Telemedicine restricts the exposure of patient information, since only the immediate provider and relevant specialists have access to it.
- A better healthcare experience. Greater convenience, privacy, and safety all add up to a better healthcare experience. And that, in turn, helps to improve patient engagement, sentiment, and satisfaction – and, most importantly, helps contribute to a better state of health.
And for healthcare providers, benefits include:
- Greater revenue potential. Telemedicine can increase patient visitations, engagement, and follow-ups, which results in greater revenue potential for physicians and providers. Also, remote visits take less time and require less staff involvement, allowing providers to treat more patients in less time – all of which adds up to a greater revenue stream for medical professionals.
- A more streamlined workflow. Remote clinical treatments have fewer moving parts than in-person visitations, which results in a more streamlined workflow. Enhanced workplace efficiency results in a number of other benefits, from increased staff satisfaction to improved organizational performance.
- Increased patient engagement. All of the aforementioned patient benefits serve to improve patient engagement and responsiveness: patients are more likely to show up for telemedicine appointments, which not only boosts revenue, it also helps to improve and maintain patient health.
Ultimately, telemedicine presents an opportunity to increase the quality of healthcare and clinical services – a major benefit for both patients and medical professionals.
However, telemedicine does have its downsides.
What are the drawbacks of telemedicine?
There are several disadvantages to telemedicine.
- Certain types of clinical services cannot be provided remotely. Naturally, certain types of diagnostics and treatment options can’t be provided remotely. Surgery, for instance, requires hands-on treatment from a trained specialist.
- Telemedicine requires training. Providing remote medical care requires a certain amount of digital literacy and training: physicians as well as patients must learn to use telemedicine software.
- A potential reduction in in-person visits. Having the option to receive remote treatment can potentially reduce in-person visitations. This can decrease the rapport between patients and their physicians. If visitations decrease too much, then treatment and patient care could be impacted – for this reason, it is important not to completely replace in-person care with remote care.
- Regulations, reimbursement, and state policies are complex and constantly changing. As we will discuss later, the ever-changing world of medical regulations will impact reimbursements, insurance coverage, the types of telemedicine services covered, and more. In the future, telemedicine will become much more standard, so regulations will become less of an obstacle over time. For now, however, patients and providers must pay close attention to how these policies impact their service.
For reasons such as these, telemedicine should certainly not be viewed as a cure-all or a replacement for in-person treatment.
Why is telemedicine becoming so widespread?
As with any other major industry trend, there are a number of causes fueling the widespread adoption of telemedicine:
- Advantages. As we saw above, telemedicine offers quite a few advantages to both patients and providers. The ability to treat remote patients, cut costs, and improve the healthcare experience, for example, are just a few of the compelling reasons that are fueling telemedicine adoption.
- Technology. Technology itself is another major cause that is propelling the telehealth and telemedicine industries. After all, digital health adoption can only advance to the extent that technology itself advances.
- Natural disasters. Natural disasters and external circumstances are another factor that are pushing the telemedicine industry forward. For instance, the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak limited movement across the globe and fueled a surge of interest in telemedicine.
In the coming years, technology will continue to advance – and as technology advances, telemedicine will become even more powerful.
Specialties within Telemedicine
Telemedicine is suitable for a number of specialties, such as:
- Sports medicine
- Pain management
This list is only partial and it continues to grow each day.
As technology becomes more capable and advanced – and as the medical industry continues to adopt telemedicine and telehealth – we can certainly expect to see more specialties begin using telemedicine technology.
Telemedicine In Practice: How Are Services Delivered?
Remote clinical services can be provided in a number of ways.
Most of us may conjure up an image of a patient consulting with a doctor from their home computer, but this is only one way that telemedicine is transforming the healthcare field.
Here are a few ways that telemedicine is currently transforming the healthcare industry:
- Real-time telemedicine. Real-time telemedicine allows patients to receive treatment directly from their own homes. This is perhaps the picture that most of us have when we think of telemedicine: patients consulting with physicians through their own computers and web cameras.
- Remote patient monitoring. With the right technology, patients can be monitored directly in their own homes. For instance, patients can transmit blood sugar levels or other data, provided they have the right tools. This allows physicians to keep tabs on patients, without bringing them in for a consultation – though, if unusual activity is recorded, providers can easily call their patients in for a visit.
- Asynchronous telemedicine. Providers that share the same software solutions can share patient data easily and securely. These platforms allow physicians to transmit health records more efficiently than in the past, which would require more time and administrative effort.
- Artificial intelligence (AI). AI can perform a great many tasks within the medical field, when it has been trained properly on the right data. The right AI tools can be used to analyze medical information and diagnose patients, often with greater accuracy than human doctors. In time, these diagnostic programs will become much more sophisticated and useful, helping physicians to diagnose patients remotely.
These types of technology-driven solutions present a number of compelling reasons why everyone should be interested and invested in the further development of telemedicine.
However, there are a number of barriers that are slowing down change in the healthcare industry.
Challenges and Barriers to the Adoption of Telemedicine
Though telemedicine is spreading rapidly, as mentioned, there are a number of factors that are impeding that growth.
Here are five challenges that telemedicine must face in order to continue its forward momentum:
The evolution of technology itself is, on the one hand, enabling and driving telemedicine forward.
However, the pace of technological advancement also represents the biggest limitation for telemedicine.
After all, if the technology hasn’t yet been developed and approved, then telemedicine cannot take advantage of those innovations.
Regulations are another hurdle that providers must overcome in order to deliver remote services to patients.
In the United States, for example, telemedicine laws vary from state to state. And those laws change on a regular basis, which means that providers and patients must keep up with those changes.
These laws can cover a wide number of areas related to telemedicine, including:
- Types of services covered
- Receiving patient consent for treatment
- Which healthcare providers can bill for telemedicine
- Restrictions on where patients can receive remote clinical care
A major focus of these regulations is on insurance and payments, which is yet another consideration for the telemedicine industry.
Telemedicine coverage will depend on a number of factors, such as:
- Federal laws
- State laws
- The insurance company and plan
For example, Medicaid and Medicare both offer coverage for certain types of telemedicine services.
Also, private insurance carriers, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield, may also provide telemedicine coverage.
As with any other medical service, it is important that to navigate these waters carefully before engaging in treatment.
4. Digital Literacy and Training
Telemedicine technology requires training, just like any other technology.
This means that medical professionals must receive training on how to provide treatment.
And patients must also learn how to use software in order to receive those services.
Since patient success depends on digital literacy – not only their own, but also upon providers’ digital skills – training and digital skills are critical to the success of any telemedicine efforts.
This adds new requirements and a new level of complexity to this particular medical field.
However, it is certainly not an insurmountable obstacle, especially with the use of the right training tools, such as digital adoption platforms (DAPs).
5. HIPAA and Cybersecurity
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a law designed to ensure that patients’ medical information remains secure at all times. It imposes very strict requirements around the handling of patient information, and any medical technology solution must abide by those requirements, telemedicine included.
HIPAA guidelines are as strict in telemedicine as they are in any other medical field, which means that:
- All medical professionals must protect the privacy of patients’ health information
- Telemedicine companies must adhere to security standards when storing and transferring information
- The very same requirements that apply to in-person visits also apply to telemedicine
Though these requirements present an extra hurdle when developing and implementing telemedicine solutions, HIPAA is certainly not new, nor is it an insurmountable obstacle.
Any company involved in telemedicine is certainly aware of these requirements, since they apply universally to any company or organization within the healthcare industry.
The Future of Telemedicine
Today, we are witnessing a surge in the popularity of telemedicine, but today’s trends are just the tip of the iceberg.
In the coming years, a number of new technologies will further transform telemedicine and the health industry as a whole.
Here are a few trends that will gradually transform the telemedicine industry:
Artificial intelligence (AI) has already been adopted by 86% off organizations, according to Tata Consultancy Services. And other organizations have plans to accelerate their investments in healthcare AI in the coming years.
AI promises a great deal of value in the medical industry, with potential uses that include:
- Diagnostics. Machine learning automatically analyzes data and recognizes patterns, which proves invaluable when it comes to medical diagnoses. AI has, for instance, been able to analyze radiology imagery and provide more accurate diagnoses than human radiologists. Though this capability casts uncertainty upon the future of this profession, it also promises great potential for telemedicine and healthcare in general.
- Prognostics. With sufficient data, predictive algorithms can be used to provide not only diagnostics, but also prognostics – that is, future predictions and recommendations. The assistance of data- and AI-driven prognoses can improve the accuracy of medical recommendations and treatments, as well as the quality of healthcare in general.
- Patient monitoring. AI can also be used to automatically monitor patient vitals, notify doctors of unusual activity, and even make certain decisions independently. When combined with many of the other technology trends mentioned here, such as robotics, we can begin to see how these trends could revolutionize telemedicine and healthcare as a whole.
- Organizational operations. The application of AI can also find its way into the operations of healthcare organizations. By improving other aspects of an organization’s operations, such as marketing or finance, businesses will be able to improve patient-facing departments.
As with any other area impacted by AI and automation, there are certainly concerns over the impact on jobs.
However, given the clear benefits offered by AI and technology – both to health organizations and to patients – it is certain that these technologies will have a massive impact on the healthcare industry.
Robotics take a longer time to develop and implement than software-based technology, such as AI.
However, advances in robotics also promise to have a massive impact on the healthcare field.
For instance, robotics can be used in a number of areas, such as:
- Telesurgery. Remote surgery has been tested and even implemented in certain hospitals. Today, robotic surgery systems are typically used because they offer more flexibility and precision, and because they are usually less invasive than standard surgical approaches. Though telesurgery is far less common, it has been successfully tested and shows a great deal of promise.
- Customer service. On a more practical note, robots can also be used to provide customer service functions in clinics and hospitals. Today, robotic customer service agents are being tested around the world in a wide variety of industries, from restaurants to airports. In the future, we should not be surprised if robots are used to provide automated customer service, remote customer service, and remote patient care.
- Senior care. Though the concept of robots providing patient care may seem unusual, this area is already receiving investment in certain countries. In Japan, for instance, a shortage of labor is fueling funding for robots that provide care to seniors. After several years of testing, research studies have shown that robot care actually makes many improvements to seniors’ quality of life.
In the coming decades, robotics will unarguably have a profound impact on telemedicine as well as the medical field as a whole.
Big data refers to the analysis of massive data sets and the utilization of that information to gain deep insights into a particular area.
In healthcare, big data can be used to analyze patients’ medical information, such as diagnostics and demographics. Machine learning and other data-driven practices can be used to recognize patterns, train AI, and more.
Among other things, big data can be used to:
- Provide greater insight into diagnostic data. As mentioned, AI can be used to recognize patterns within data and improve diagnostics and prognostics. However, a prerequisite for these capabilities is access to massive data sets. Once a machine learning algorithm has access to such large data sets, it can crunch that information at speeds and in ways that humans simply cannot.
- Improve business operations and efforts. Businesses are already using data to improve operations at every level. And healthcare organizations also must operate like businesses – after all, patients are customers. With the right data, organizations can improve operations across virtually every other business function.
- Personalize healthcare experiences. Big data is used to provide more personalized services across a wide range of business areas. Recommendation engines, for instance, leverage large data sets to provide product recommendations that improve the overall customer experience. The same principle applies in healthcare: personalization can help healthcare providers improve healthcare solutions across the board, from telemedicine to in-person care.
Of course, utilizing big data in healthcare does come with challenges, such as fragmented data, inconsistent use of medical codes, and so forth.
However, these barriers will certainly be smoothed out over time, and big data will become yet another technology field that will contribute to telemedicine and digital transformation in healthcare.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the integration of sensors and devices into the internet on a large scale. This connectivity enables new possibilities in a wide range of disciplines, including healthcare.
There are several ways that IoT can be used in telemedicine.
- Wearables can act as patient monitoring devices. Wearable technology offers a great deal of potential when it comes to remote patient monitoring. Bracelets, for instance, can be used to track a number of vital signs, such as heart rate. In the future, however, wearable technology will be able to monitor many other areas, from blood sugar to blood pressure and even pupil dilation, which can be used to track emotions and moods.
- Mobile technology and apps can act as portals to remote treatment. As technology continues to evolve, mobile technology will become more capable and relevant to telemedicine. We will be more likely to see mobile apps and healthcare services that can be delivered to patients through mobile devices. Receiving remote consultations through mobile devices may even become the standard in the coming years.
- Many telemedicine solutions, such as remote patient monitoring and remote surgery, depend on IoT. As mentioned above, we can also expect to see the rise of robotics within the field of telemedicine. However, it is important to note that robotics, AI, and IoT are all interdependent. Robot-provided care, for instance, will be predicated on the successful application of other technologies, such as remote patient monitoring.
Ultimately, all of the technology trends covered here, including IoT, will act interdependently to fuel the growth of telemedicine.
How to Adopt Telemedicine: A Guide for Providers
As technology and telemedicine both continue to evolve, many healthcare providers are considering adopting telemedicine within their organization.
However, given all of the topics we have covered so far, it should be apparent that adopting telemedicine requires careful forethought and planning.
Here are a few steps to follow when evaluating and implementing telemedicine solutions:
Research and understand the options
Telemedicine is a continually changing field and, as mentioned, not every medical service is appropriate for remote treatment.
The very first aim, therefore, should be to understand:
- The current state of telemedicine
- Which options are viable from a business perspective
- How those telemedicine options would fit into the current business model
Once the organization’s leaders have determined an appropriate use case scenario, it is time to establish strategic objectives.
Once the type of telemedicine has been chosen, the organization’s leaders should create a strategy and plan based around specific, achievable goals.
These goals should center around some form of organizational improvement, such as:
- Increased revenue
- Improved patient engagement
- Gaining an advantage over competitors
- New patient acquisition
These goals should then be transformed into quantifiable objectives, metrics, and KPIs – those should then be tracked throughout testing and implementation.
Choose the type of telemedicine services to provide
As mentioned above, there are several types of telemedicine that are viable in today’s marketplace.
- Real-time remote consultation and treatment
- Remote patient monitoring
- Asynchronous telemedicine
Once the specific services have been chosen, that service should be tied directly into the aims of the telemedicine program.
Target the right audience
Not all telemedicine solutions are suitable for all segments of the patient population.
Therefore, before actually implementing the telemedicine solution, providers should choose which patients to target.
These segments can include, for instance:
- Rural patients. Rural patients can benefit greatly from telemedicine. Since they are located further away from healthcare providers, they will be more likely to respond to remote treatment options. Not only will telemedicine be more convenient, it can increase patient engagement, which can subsequently increase the quality of care.
- Elderly patients. Elderly patients naturally have a more difficult time commuting to and from healthcare providers. Remote clinical treatment removes or reduces the need for a commute, which can increase engagement and the quality of healthcare that they receive.
- Younger patients. Young patients often have fewer health problems than older patients, but they may be more likely to engage with healthcare providers through their technology. As with the other populations mentioned here, testing is the best way to determined which population responds best.
- Patients with specific needs. Each healthcare provider will offer a specific set of services and sub-specialties. When implementing a new technology, an organization may choose to focus on a small sub-set of patients and services. By starting small, an organization can evaluate the effect of telemedicine, its benefits, and its drawbacks, without overwhelming the organization.
Though telehealth solutions may eventually be provided to an entire population, it is advisable to start small, test, make improvements, then scale up as necessary.
Evaluate telemedicine providers
Today, there are a number of telemedicine providers that are spearheading healthcare innovation and driving the market forward.
A number of criteria should govern the choice of telemedicine provider, such as:
- The company’s reputation and history
- Whether a provider offers an appropriate solution
- Product quality
- How the solution would integrate with existing technology
- The future viability of the solution
Ultimately, telemedicine should form part of an organization’s long-term digital transformation and change strategy, which is why it is important to choose the right provider.
Prepare for change
Organizational change requires adequate preparation, with a focus on the human element.
In other words, organizations should prepare staff by…
- Building awareness. Before beginning a change program it is important to notify employees about the change: what is happening, why the change is occurring, and how it will occur. The more openly business leaders communicate this information, the less likely employees will be to resist.
- Motivating employees to support the change. Most employees have enough work on their plate as it is, so it is often necessary to motivate employees in order to earn their support. One good way to do this is by explaining how the telemedicine effort will streamline work efforts and benefit them personally – while also alleviating fears associated with the change proposal.
- Training employees on how to use the software. Any new software, including telemedicine software, requires training. That training should begin well before the actual rollout, and employees should be able to demonstrate their ability with that software before patient trials.
How the change is managed will have a direct impact on the success of the telemedicine initiative, which is why it is so important to create and executed a well-structured change strategy.
Implement, monitor, and optimize
There are different ways to roll out a new program, such as telemedicine programs.
An organization-wide rollout will implement the entire effort across the organization all at once.
Another approach is to pilot test the program with a small group of patients and staff, in order to test viability, acquire data, and make adjustments.
Either way, it is important that the telemedicine program is…
- Continually monitored
- Optimized over time
- Modified if circumstances warrant
With a data-driven approach to implementation – and a solid digital change plan – it will be possible to minimize friction and create a telemedicine program that is profitable for both patients and the organization.