Telemedicine has been around for decades. But in the last few years, it’s seen a major surge of interest. Should health care providers embrace this resurrected trend, and how much value can they expect if they do?
Now, more than ever before, patients are looking to receive health information in real time. We’re used to the convenience of the web, which allows us to better understand our symptoms with just a few keystrokes.
Of course, assessing the status of our personal health based on articles published online is no substitute for seeing a doctor. What makes telemedicine different is its capacity to provide both easy accessibility and expertise.
Unfortunately, not everybody is sold on the value. Some critics contend that it’s easier for doctors to make mistakes when they don’t see patients in person. They worry that remote visits fracture communication between health care providers, resulting in lower-quality care for patients.
There may have been a time when this was true. But patient needs, popular models of care, and technology have evolved in recent years. Today, telemedicine can help providers offer proactive, responsive, and carefully-coordinated care – even for chronic patients.
Here are five reasons health care teams should reconsider the benefits of telemedicine.
1) Today, it’s Truly Patient-Centred
Every health care service provider is claiming to offer patient-centred care. It makes sense that they would. What’s more fundamental to high-quality care than putting patients first?
Unfortunately, like many buzz-worthy health care terms, “patient-centred” is overused.
Telemedicine has long expanded the options available to those who need it. As just one example, nurses in rural communities frequently connect patients to specialists in urban centres through videoconferencing technology.
But what about patient preferences? If you have a chronic disease, commuting to a doctor’s office for frequent videoconferencing sessions is inconvenient. The same is true of waiting for nurses to bring the right equipment into your house.
In recent years, telemedicine technologies have become more portable and far easier to use. With the touch of a tablet screen, patients can connect with care providers from the comfort of home. Even those with cognitive impairments and mobility issues can communicate with the health care professionals in their circles of care.
Patient-centred care is about empowerment, something recent telemedicine technologies can facilitate.
2) More Than Ever Before, It Can Cut Costs
Most health care practitioners would agree that Canadian health care needs to change.
Cost inefficiency is one of the biggest issues. Part of the problem has to do with the way the system was designed – namely, to treat acute conditions.
Let’s face it: the expenditures associated with hospital stays are high. It costs $1,100 per day for a palliative care patient to occupy an acute care bed. If the same patient were to receive care at home, the cost would be under $100.
At a time when chronic conditions are on the rise, acute care doesn’t always provide the best patient outcomes. And it certainly isn’t the most cost-effective.
For these reasons, policymakers are increasingly moving patients out of hospitals and into their homes. By helping make home care possible for more people, a new class of telemedicine is reducing health care expenditures.
Believe it or not, it’s estimated that telemedicine can reduce health care costs by 90%
And patients save money too. Travelling to and from regular medical appointments can be expensive. The ability to check in with doctors, nurses, personal support workers – anyone within personal circles of care – can reduce this financial burden.
3) It Encourages Greater Involvement Within Circles of Care
According to some commentators, after decades of “industrialized” medicine, primary care doctors are again forming close relationships with patients.
How does this relate to telemedicine? On the surface, it doesn’t. After all, remote care is – well, remote. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the right telemedicine technology can actually lead to better communication and engagement – not just between patients and primary physicians, but across entire circles of care.
The truth is, most telemedicine critics have a slightly outdated view. They imagine very basic one-to-one videoconferences. They imagine the patient developments that could occur during these closed sessions (such as prescription changes), and how easily caregivers can miss them when they don’t take part.
In this version of telemedicine, technology fractures communication, making care less (not more) coordinated.
Luckily, innovation has created a better version. More comprehensive videoconferencing tools allow doctors, nurses, pharmacists – everyone involved in a patient’s circle of care – to connect easily. Practitioners cam collaborate on visual patient assessments, share critical health information, and send updates in real-time.
Another benefit of recent telemedicine technologies? They lead to greater engagement from patients and their family members. For this reason, the best digital tools are easy to access and navigate.
The shift toward closer, more longterm doctor-patient relationships may actually explain the renewed interest in telemedicine. After all, remote care works best when there’s an ongoing health conversation between provider and patient.
4) It Can Help During Emergencies
Because many of today’s telemedicine technologies are instantly accessible to patients, they can be helpful during emergencies.
As any health care provider knows, not every emergency is a real emergency. Patients with chronic and complex conditions may experience symptom changes they find alarming. Sometimes, these symptoms are to be expected. They don’t always warrant a trip to the emergency room.
On the other hand, some people are inclined to ignore symptoms that may signal serious trouble.
A patient who can contact a health care professional she trusts at the click of a button (or, failing that, a triage nurse) is less likely to make an incorrect assumption.
Some telemedicine technologies can also be combined with personal emergency systems. If a person with mobility issues falls, the circle of care they connect with through telemedicine can be notified instantly. A real-time video connection can confirm or deny that an emergency has occurred.
5) The Health Care Landscape Has Changed
In the past, many health care providers saw telemedicine as a novelty. Sure, remote diagnosis and treatment made sense in rural communities. But why would a patient living in an urban centre prefer a remote visit over an in-person appointment?
In recent years, chronic disease rates have exploded. As a result, many health care practitioners and government organizations have been rethinking traditional service delivery models.
There are also more patients consulting with specialists than ever before. There are more visits being carried out, more drugs being prescribed, and more being tests ordered. The result is greater strain on our health care system.
Add the aging population to the mix, and we could be headed for a health care crisis.
The good news is, for many chronic patients, home is the best place to be. Home care is also the least costly option for government. But patients rarely do well outside of facilities without support.
Advanced telemedicine technologies create networks of support and make it easy to connect with those who belong to them. By providing access to these tools, practitioners empower their chronic patients.
New features have further improved these technologies. For example, videoconferencing tools with medication-tracking capabilities can help nurses better monitor the physical health of their patients.
Better support often leads to better health and fewer hospital readmissions.
It’s Time to Consider the New Class of Telemedicine Technology
Change – meaningful change – takes time. Often, we have no choice but to embrace it. As patient needs shift, service providers will be forced to find better ways of communicating with circles of care.
Many practitioners are reluctant. They don’t see telemedicine as a new and exciting solution. If this sounds like you, remember: telehealth never really disappeared. And now, it’s time for this promising class of technology to shine.
Feature image courtesy of Neil Turner