Telehealth is More Than Video
The public health crisis of 2020 drove telehealth use into the mainstream for both patients and providers alike. In March 2020, telehealth visits were up 154% from the year before, as more patients saw the opportunities that telehealth affords: virtual visits without risking exposure to the then-novel Coronavirus and the convenience of being able to see a doctor from the comfort of the patient’s home. After experiencing the need for telehealth options, patients are becoming more familiar and receptive to the concept, with nearly two-thirds of telehealth users reporting high satisfaction with their experiences. While patient satisfaction is high, that is not the only metric that counts. One the great promises that comes to mind when mentioning telehealth is that of expanding access to underserved communities.
Although we tend to think of a face-to-face interaction between a health care provider and patient over a video or phone call, the reality is that telehealth is much more than that modality alone. Video-based interactions are referred to as synchronous, meaning that interactions are live and in real-time. While telehealth is primarily associated with video calls, a normal phone call is a powerful tool in promoting access to care. While some patients may not have a smartphone or other device needed for videoconferencing with their healthcare provider, many have at least a basic cellphone or landline as well as the familiarity with the device. This approach is particularly well suited for patients of lower socioeconomic status or those living in rural areas where internet access is not available, while delivering care that is on par with other forms of telehealth. Using regular phone calls for telehealth visits gives healthcare providers an opportunity to reach patients who may otherwise not have access to telehealth.
Phone call-based approaches can be paired well with asynchronous or “store and forward,” approaches meaning that health data like symptoms and vital signs are transmitted from the patient to the provider for them to review at a later time and can be done through online chats or mobile applications. A special case of such approaches is remote patient monitoring, or RPM. With RPM, patients are equipped with devices they can us eat home like wearable fitness trackers, blood pressure cuffs, pulse oximeters, or cardiac monitors that collect patient health data in real-time. With typical, in-office visits, providers only have the snapshot of this data during the duration of the visit but are unable to detect patterns that may emerge outside of their office.
Telehealth is so much more than just video calls with a healthcare provider, it creates an essential mechanism for ensuring that patients stay healthy and can maintain treatments even once they are not under the direct care of a health care provider. Advancing technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning will only improve telehealth and RPM, as the technology may be able to detect patterns before a health care provider may. As telehealth continues to be an efficient method of delivering healthcare long after the pandemic has ended, we will only continue to see the role of telehealth and its capabilities increase.