What is telehealth, really? How do I get started?

The COVID-19 outbreak has put tremendous stress on healthcare practices and their patients. Given the fears of exposure to the contagious virus, many healthcare providers are offering telehealth to their patients and clients. 

Some specialist practices have closed or reduced hours and are wondering what they should do now. Other primary care and multispecialty practices are overwhelmed and are trying their best to handle the influx of COVID-19 questions and cases. We have been helping providers implement telehealth because it can both help improve cash flow and efficiency.

But what is telehealth, exactly? And, if your EHR vendor does not offer it, which standalone telehealth vendor should you use?

question mark for telehealth

Want the full guide for the best telehealth platforms for private practices? Contact us for a copy.

Telehealth defined

Telehealth is another healthcare buzzword that means different things depending on who you ask. It is nearly synonymous with telemedicine, which is a less comprehensive term that often excludes non-allopathic care like therapy.

Here is how WHO has officially defined it:

“The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities” 

Or, in simpler terms: remote healthcare. Care over phone, video, radio, and e-messaging with your doctor, nurse and therapist.

In the United States, state-administered Medicaid plans categorize telehealth procedures as:

  1. Live Video
  2. Store-and-forward (i.e. not live video/images)
  3. Remote Patient Monitoring
  4. Email/Phone/Fax. 

Live Video telehealth is currently the most reimbursable. Live Video is also what most people think of when they think of ‘telehealth’.

A brief history on telehealth

Unlike COVID-19, telehealth is not novel. In fact, telehealth is more than twice your age.

Why has it taken us a century-and-a-half to make a nationwide effort to introduce it formally in the clinical setting? Perhaps low reimbursement potential, another symptom of “other people’s money”, has something to do with it.

The idea of using the telephone to reduce office visits has been around as long as the telephone (Lancet, 1879). Diagnosis by radio was happening in the early ‘20s (Science and Invention, 1925). Larger health systems have been using video for patient care for quite a while, too.

Telehealth can save the US >$3B per year

While telehealth has proven useful to limit exposure to infectious disease, its real power lies in what it can do for our nation’s inordinate healthcare costs.

Most of the United State’s $3.5 trillion annual healthcare expenditure (~90% according to the CDC) is used to treat patients with chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression. The costs and inconvenience of regular office visits in these cases can be reduced with patient-friendly remote care ‘check-ins’. 

Additionally, there are substantial costs for transportation to and from healthcare facilities. In many cases, people must take time off from work for healthcare visits.

People may use preventative care more once telehealth’s adoption makes it easier. While it is often incorrectly assumed that preventative care reduces a nation’s cost of care, it likely does improve healthcare outcomes.

Needless to say, patients, insurers and Uncle Sam stand to save a lot of money from nationwide adoption of telehealth. Research estimates this amount to exceed $4 billion, annually. To be widely reimbursed and adopted, telehealth must convince payors that the increase in access is offset by a decrease in chronic care costs.

But healthcare providers, especially in remote or rural areas, are the biggest beneficiaries. Being able to extend care outside of your time and location constraints is powerful.

How do I get started with telehealth?

Some healthcare providers have access to telehealth through their EHR. For those that do not, there are dozens of standalone telehealth platforms to choose from.

Want the full guide for the best telehealth platforms for private practices? Contact us for a copy.

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