What is Telemedicine? Telemedicine Definition & Benefits in a Post Coronavirus World

The world is in crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, and for seniors, people who have disabilities , and family caregivers, it’s an especially trying time. Many older adults and people with disabilities have compromised immune systems, making them especially vulnerable to health risks like COVID-19. Telemedicine provides a beacon of hope for those who are immune-deficient, as well as their caregivers, who worry about exposing themselves when they venture out into the community and, in turn, exposing those they care for to dangerous viruses like the coronavirus. In this post, we’ll discuss telemedicine, the technologies that support it, and how telemedicine benefits seniors, people who have disabilities, and family caregivers.

Definition of Telemedicine

Telemedicine is the use of technology to provide clinical health services such as diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment at a distance, without an in-person consultation or visit. Telemedicine relies on the use of telecommunications, electronic and digital communications technologies to provide healthcare services at a distance, making it possible for patients to receive medical advice at any time from the comfort of home. By allowing older adults, disabled persons, and family caregivers to access vital clinical healthcare services from the comfort of home, telemedicine makes it possible for these vulnerable populations to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

When was Telemedicine First Used?

Telemedicine has been around in some form since 1948, when two physicians first transmitted radiologic images over the telephone at a distance of 24 miles apart. Of course, the origins of telemedicine can even be traced back to the Middle Ages, when physicians diagnosed and treated patients by exchanging hand-written notes, and later as physicians began to provide healthcare advice to patients over the telephone. Today, technology advancements have made it possible to offer clinical healthcare services remotely through a variety of methods, such as videoconferencing, patient portals, mobile health applications, and much more. While it’s not a new concept, telemedicine is proving to be an incredibly valuable service during the coronavirus pandemic. As many healthcare providers have limited their in-person office visits to urgent or emergent services only, the need for ongoing clinical health care and monitoring hasn’t disappeared. For older adults and people with disabilities, regular checkups are crucial for health and well-being. Thanks to telemedicine, vulnerable populations continue to have convenient access to their healthcare providers during this difficult time.

What are the Different Types of Telemedicine?

There are three primary types of telemedicine:

  • Interactive Medicine: Also known as live telemedicine, interactive medicine involves providing clinical healthcare remotely in real-time, such as through the use of videoconferencing. For seniors, disabled persons, and family caregivers, videoconferencing and similar technologies is a comforting experience similar to a face-to-face interaction.
  • Remote Patient Monitoring: In Remote Patient Monitoring, or RPM, medical devices or wearable technology is used to collect patient health data, which is then sent to a healthcare provider in another location for monitoring. The data collected for RPM may include blood sugar levels, oxygen levels, vital statistics such as heart rate, blood pressure, and more. The ability for healthcare providers to monitor these crucial health statistics from a distance enables them to identify potential health concerns before they become emergencies, reducing the need for visits to urgent care clinics and emergency rooms, where exposure to other patients with contagious illnesses like COVID-19 can spread disease.
  • Store-and-Forward: Using store-and-forward technologies, providers can capture, store, and transmit images, documents, and other information. Store-and-forward technology commonly is used for sharing data between providers for consultation.

What is the Difference Between Telehealth and Telemedicine?

Telemedicine refers specifically to using telecommunications technologies to provide clinical patient care, while telehealth is a broader term that encompasses a range of health and administration activities provided remotely using technology. Telehealth can include non-clinical services, such as health education for professionals and patients, health administration, and other related services. Telemedicine, on the other hand, refers only to remote clinical services. For older adults, disabled persons, and family caregivers, telemedicine is a lifeline when venturing outside into the community risks exposure to dangerous viruses like COVID-19.

How Does Telemedicine Support Caregiving?

Telemedicine is a valuable tool for seniors and disabled persons and their caregivers. Telemedicine gives primary caregivers confidence in their ability to meet their loved one’s needs, knowing that a qualified healthcare provider is within reach and accessible whenever they need guidance or advice. Telemedicine contributes to making caregiving more efficient, safer, and less stressful compared to traditional models, in which caregivers were faced with transporting their loved one to a provider’s office or emergency room every time their loved one’s health status changed or new symptoms emerged. By reducing emergency room visits and readmissions, the quality of life for patients and caregivers alike is improved. Telecommunication platforms also make it easier to keep everyone in the loop, connecting patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers in one place for seamless communication and collaboration. With more older adults opting to age-in-place in their homes, tools like remote patient monitoring can provide peace of mind for family caregivers and other loved ones.

Best Practices for Leveraging Telemedicine During the Coronavirus Pandemic & Beyond

Telemedicine is valuable for patients who reside in rural areas with limited access to healthcare compared to those who live in suburban or urban areas. It’s also becoming increasingly beneficial for seniors who choose to age in place, making it possible to receive healthcare without physically traveling to a healthcare provider’s office. Telemedicine is especially valuable for seniors with mobility challenges who have difficulty getting into a vehicle and traveling to a physician’s office, as well as for those who have limited access to transportation. Of course, as the world is facing the coronavirus pandemic and people around the world are urged to stay home other than for essential activities (such as obtaining food), telemedicine is a vital service that can save lives by allowing those with compromised immune systems to receive essential clinical health care services without leaving their homes. Because patients don’t have to travel to the provider’s office to receive treatment, telemedicine saves patients time and, in some cases, is a more affordable option compared to traditional healthcare delivery. For example, according to a March 2017 report in Health Affairs, costly visits to physician’s offices, urgent care clinics, and emergency departments can be replaced with a telemedicine visit at a lower cost. The study found that the average cost of a telemedicine visit is $79, compared to $149 on average for a physician’s office visit and $1,734 on average for an emergency room visit. That said, telemedicine providers may be more likely to recommend an in-person follow-up visit with the patient’s regular healthcare provider, and other costs, such as prescription medications and travel to and from the pharmacy may contribute to the total cost. While telemedicine can’t be used for situations requiring urgent, hands-on care, such as a broken limb that requires splinting or casting or a heart attack, it’s a practical solution for follow-up visits, simple issues, and other situations that allow providers to adequately assess and treat patients based on the patient’s or caregiver’s verbal descriptions of symptoms, images or videos, and other data, such as the patient’s temperature or the results of at-home screenings, such as at-home tests designed to detect the presence of a urinary tract infection. As the world copes with the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath, telemedicine is playing a crucial role for many people. Not only does telemedicine help to save lives during times of crisis, when venturing outside the home and risking exposure to dangerous viruses like COVID-19, but it’s a vitally important service that makes clinical health services more accessible for all, including people with disabilities, older adults, and the caregivers dedicated to caring for them every day.  

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