What is Telehealth, Anyway? A RingMD Review of the Growing Field of Telemedicine

Jul 06, 2019
4 min read

Telehealth is a growing field where patients can meet with doctors and mental healthcare professionals via video chat or other secure messaging systems. In the United States, telehealth first gained a foothold in the state of Hawaii. The private insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield of Hawaii was searching for a solution for better healthcare access for all Hawaiians. Many had to travel from their home islands by boat or plane to receive healthcare and mental health services, a situation that was inconvenient, and sometimes dangerous, for those with illnesses and injuries that needed to be treated quickly. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Hawaii first supported the telehealth platform just over ten years ago, and the field has grown in leaps and bounds across the islands ever since.

Many of the first telehealth platforms were deployed in areas with similar issues that made access to quality healthcare challenging or patient travel difficult. Telehealth became a boon to those living in rural or isolated communities; patients with limited access to specialists; those with chronic conditions that found themselves needing more support as they learned how to self-manage their health care; and people with mobility issues, limited time, or lack of access to reliable transportation.

According to a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in late 2018, telehealth visits increased by approximately 52% a year from 2005 to 2015. Recently, broadband service and cell phone coverage areas have grown internationally, private insurance companies have increasingly offered coverage for telehealth visits, and parity laws have begun to ensure that in-person health services and telehealth visits are covered similarly. These factors contributed to an incredible increase of telehealth visits, at a rate of 261% growth between 2015 and 2017.

Fans of telehealth also see this growth as a testament to the platform’s advantages and ease of use. The telehealth platform allows for patients to quickly and easily be diagnosed and treated for the sorts of illnesses and injuries that previously would have seen them sitting endlessly in doctors’ waiting rooms and urgent care centers, or worse, suffering through a weekend or holiday until such centers reopened for their regular business hours.    

Not only do telehealth visits allow patients to access healthcare when in-person visits are difficult or impossible to obtain, they can allow doctors and health care teams to access specialists’ expertise and regularly monitor the health of patients with chronic conditions remotely. For example, diabetics could use telehealth services to have their exercise and food logs, medication use, and blood sugar levels reviewed by their healthcare team. Healthcare teams could then recalibrate their patients’ insulin and other needs accordingly. They could also use the telehealth platform to remind patients of their need for preventative care such as foot exams and pneumonia and flu vaccines. Any medications and testing supplies diabetic patients needed could be ordered and sent directly to them. In addition, the results of mobile retinal imaging could be sent to a specialist such as an ophthalmologist, who would then be able to identify any abnormalities in the retinal blood vessels that could indicate diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness.    

Seamless, life-changing care provided via telehealth is no utopian fantasy. A 2016 review of studies showed that telehealth-based patient monitoring reduced the risk of death and hospitalization in people with heart failure. In addition, telehealth-based monitoring markedly improved these patients’ overall quality of life. Telehealth has also been a godsend in the face of the escalating psychiatrist shortage. In the United States, for example, there is not a single practicing psychiatrist in more than half of all U.S. counties. Meanwhile, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from at least one mental health condition. Telehealth allows psychiatrists to treat patients or advise primary healthcare providers on best practices in behavioral health treatment. Some telehealth platforms even allow for patients to have weekly virtual appointments with counselors for issues such as anxiety, depression, and addiction recovery.

In short, telehealth is an excellent and appropriate way for both generally healthy patients with acute injuries and illnesses and those with chronic issues to quickly and easily obtain quality healthcare. Telehealth eliminates obstacles to patient care, improves healthcare access for all, and provides a route for specialty care for underserved populations. The field of telehealth is growing and its use is increasingly covered by private insurance companies. With increased access to both tech services and technological advances on the horizon, the telehealth platform is poised to continue exponential growth, ensuring that patients, doctors, and specialists are better connected than ever before.