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Mobile technology has changed the world, and nowhere is that more evident than in the field of medicine. Many people are familiar with health apps for smartphones and messaging to get in touch with the doctor's office or be alerted to appointments. Telehealth is much more than that, however, and it offers numerous benefits to both patients and doctors. The system also needs to overcome a lot of challenges before telehealth can be used to its full potential across the United States.

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What Is Telehealth?

Telehealth is the use of virtual technology and telecommunication software to deliver healthcare in non-traditional ways. It takes many forms. Well-designed telehealth systems improve access for patient populations and reduce the demands on crowded hospitals and doctors' offices. There are environmental impacts, too. Because this care is remote instead of face-to-face, transportation and operational emissions are lower, as are energy consumption and general waste.

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Telehealth Benefits

One of the biggest benefits of telehealth is improved accessibility for patients in rural areas with limited access to doctors' offices and hospitals or for those with transportation difficulties who cannot reliably make it to appointments. For people with chronic conditions requiring a lot of consultations, telehealth is much less disruptive than driving to multiple appointments every month. Telehealth can also connect patients to specialists living in a different state, or even a different country.

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Uses for Telehealth

Telehealth is more than just talking to your doctor through your smartphone or tablet. It also includes things like uploading food logs and blood sugar levels for your doctor to review, watching educational videos about how to manage your health, using an online patient portal to check lab results and request prescription refills, and receiving messages reminding you about preventative care and upcoming appointments.

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eVisits

There are situations when doctors need to see their patients in person, but when a physical examination is not required, remote visits often suffice. Telehealth visits can address minor illnesses and injuries, and a doctor or nurse practitioner can prescribe medications or provide further instructions. These individuals can avoid leaving the house if they feel unwell, giving them more time to get better and eliminating the risk of spreading illness.

Telehealth Sick Evisit Eva-Katalin / Getty Images

Remote Monitoring

Remote monitoring is another significant benefit of telehealth with many applications. People with diabetes can download apps that allow them to upload daily blood sugars readings, enabling the doctor to monitor them without time-consuming visits or mailing of paper records. There are devices that monitor blood pressure, heart rate, heart rhythms, and lung function, as well, and automatically send results to a doctor. This lets doctors keep a close eye on their patients' conditions with minimal inconvenience to the patient.

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Personal Use

There are also plenty of ways telehealth services help people monitor their own health. Some apps allow people to store all of their health information so, in the event of an emergency, first responders can quickly learn an individual's blood type, underlying conditions, mediations, and allergies. Other apps help people track their own details, such as caloric intake and daily step count, and send medication reminders.

Health Tracking App Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Challenges

Telehealth does come with its challenges. Often, access depends on health insurance and what it covers, which varies from one company to the next. Another problem is the availability of broadband internet, as not everyone has access to the speed required for effective telehealth sessions. Licensure can also be an issue. If the patient now has access to physicians in other states, this can complicate online prescribing. Finally, relying more on remote technology also provides more opportunities for abuse, fraud, and security issues.

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Future Potential

Telehealth is a relatively new concept, but it has become massively popular, and continued growth is expected, if not inevitable. About 76 percent of hospitals in the U.S. use some sort of telehealth technology. Medicaid covers some forms of access, as do most private insurance companies. As technology advances and telemedicine expands, more patients will be able to access its benefits.

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Quality of Care

Telehealth can improve the quality of care by allowing doctors to communicate with each other and seamlessly share lab results and diagnostic tests within a shared system. It also widens access which in and of itself directly affects health outcomes. On the other hand, research suggests that care fragmentation can be an issue. For example, if patient information is gathered during a virtual visit and is improperly entered into the system or entered into a system available to only a few members of the healthcare team, this can adversely affect outcomes.

Consultation Quality Care FG Trade / Getty Images

Payment

Payment is another challenge, as laws vary from state to state and from one insurance company to another. Not every state has enacted laws requiring health insurers to cover telehealth as they would in-person services. Medicare reimbursement is somewhat limited, and other approaches to payment have yet to be explored.

Payment Insurance Medicare fizkes / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.