Telehealth involves the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies. It allows long distance patient/clinician contact and care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring and remote admissions. As well as provider distance-learning; meetings, supervision, and presentations between practitioners; online information and health data management and healthcare system integration. Telehealth could include two clinicians discussing a case over video conference; a robotic surgery occurring through remote access; physical therapy done via digital monitoring instruments, live feed and application combinations; tests being forwarded between facilities for interpretation by a higher specialist; home monitoring through continuous sending of patient health data; client to practitioner online conference; or even videophone interpretation during a consult.
As the population grows and ages, and medical advances are made which prolong life, demands increase on the healthcare system. Healthcare providers are also being asked to do more, with no increase in funding, or are encouraged to move to new models of funding and care such as patient-centered or outcomes based, rather than fee-for-service. Some specific health professions already have a shortage (i.e. Speech-language pathologists). When rural settings, lack of transport, lack of mobility (i.e. In the elderly or disabled), decreased funding or lack of staffing restrict access to care, telehealth can bridge the gap.
Telehealth versus telemedicine
Telehealth is sometimes discussed interchangeably with telemedicine. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) distinguishes telehealth from telemedicine in its scope. According to HRSA, telemedicine only describes remote clinical services; such as diagnosis and monitoring, while telehealth includes preventative, promotive and curative care delivery. This includes the above-mentioned non-clinical applications like administration and provider education which make telehealth the preferred modern terminology.
The development and history of telehealth or telemedicine (terms used interchangeably in literature) is deeply rooted in the history and development in not only technology but also society itself. Humans have long sought to relay important messages through torches, optical telegraphy, electroscopes, and wireless transmission. In the 21st century, with the advent of the internet, portable devices and other such digital devices are taking a transformative role in healthcare and its delivery.
Although, traditional medicine relies on in-person care, the need and want for remote care has existed from the Roman and pre-Hippocratic periods in antiquity. The elderly and infirm who could not visit temples for medical care sent representatives to convey information on symptoms and bring home a diagnosis as well as treatment. In Africa, villagers would use smoke signals to warn neighbouring villages of disease outbreak. The beginnings of telehealth have existed through primitive forms of communication and technology.
1800s to early 1900s
As technology developed and wired communication became increasingly commonplace, the ideas surround telehealth began emerging. The earliest telehealth encounter can be traced to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, when he used his early telephone as a means of getting help from his assistant Mr Watson after he spilt acid on his trousers. Another instance of early telehealth, specifically telemedicine was reported in The Lancet in 1879. An anonymous writer described a case where a doctor successfully diagnosed a child over the telephone in the middle of the night. This Lancet issue, also further discussed the potential of Remote Patient Care in order to avoid unnecessary house visits, which were part of routine health care during the 1800s. Other instances of telehealth during this period came from the American Civil War, during which telegraphs were used to deliver mortality lists and medical care to soldiers.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s the early foundations of wireless communication were laid down. Radios provided an easier and near instantaneous form of communication. The use of radio to deliver healthcare became accepted for remote areas. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia is an example of the early adoption of radios in telehealth.
Mid-1900s to 1980s
It was during the mid-1900s well into the 1980s that a lot of the momentum and foundations of telehealth were founded. When the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began plans to send astronauts into space, the need for Telemedicine became all too clear. In order to monitor their astronauts in space, telemedicine capabilities were built into the spacecraft as well as the first spacesuits. Additionally, during this period, telehealth and Telemedicine were promoted in different countries especially the United States. Different projects were funded across North America and Canada in order to realise the exciting potential of this new innovation.
In 1964, the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute began using television links to form two-way communication with the Norfolk State Hospital which was 112 miles away for the education and consultation purposes between clinicians in the two locations. The Logan International Airport in Boston established in-house medical stations in 1967. These stations were linked to Massachusetts General Hospital. Clinicians at the hospital would provide consultation services to patients who were at the airport. Consultations were achieved through microwave audio as well as video links.
In 1972, there was a key emphasis on telemedicine so much so that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the United States approved funding for seven telemedicine projects across different states. This funding was renewed and two further projects were funded the following year.
1980s to 1990s – maturation and renaissance
Although the excitement of telehealth and telemedicine remained, enthusiasm waned in the 1980s. Telehealth projects underway before and during the 1980s would take off but fail to proliferate mainstream healthcare. This put a halt on various projects and reduced opportunities for funding. As a result, this period of telehealth history is called the "maturation" stage and made way for sustainable growth.
Sustained growth happened most notably in North America. Although State funding was beginning to run low, different hospitals in various states began to launch their own telehealth initiatives. Additionally, NASA started experimenting with their ATS-3 satellite. Eventually, NASA started their SateLife/HealthNet programme which tried to increase the health services connectivity in developing countries.
The combination of sustained growth, the advent of the internet and the increasing adoption of ICT in traditional methods of care spurred the revival or "renaissance" of telehealth into the early 2000s and onwards.
2000s and onward
The early 2000s were characterised by accelerated development in both science and technology. The early adoption of technology in society made way for widespread adoption in society. The diffusion of portable devices like laptops and mobile devices in everyday life made ideas surrounding telehealth more plausible. This continuing trend of better and innovative technology in homes, schools and organisations is contributing to the growing research in telehealth. Telehealth is no longer bound within the realms of telemedicine but has expanded itself to promotion, prevention and education.
Methods and modalities
Telehealth requires a strong, reliable broadband connection. The broadband signal transmission infrastructure includes wires, cables, microwaves and optic fibre, which must be maintained for the provision of telehealth services. The better the connection (bandwidth quality), the more data can be sent and received. Historically this has priced providers or patients out of the service, but as the infrastructure improves and becomes more accessible, telehealth usage can grow.
When a healthcare service decides to provide telehealth to its patients, there are steps to consider, besides just whether the above resources are available. A needs assessment is the best way to start, which includes assessing the access the community currently has to the proposed specialists and care, whether the organisation currently has underutilized equipment which will make them useful to the area they are trying to service, and the hardships they are trying to improve by providing the access to their intended community (i.e. Travel time, costs, time off work). A service then needs to consider potential collaborators. Other services may exist in the area with similar goals who could be joined to provide a more holistic service, and/or they may already have telehealth resources available. The more services involved, the easier to spread the cost of IT, training, workflow changes and improve buy-in from clients. Services need to have the patience to wait for the accrued benefits of providing their telehealth service and cannot necessarily expect community-wide changes reflected straight away.
Once the need for a Telehealth service is established, delivery can come within four distinct domains. They are live video (synchronous), store-and-forward (asynchronous), remote patient monitoring, and mobile health. Live video involves a real-time two-way interaction, such as patient/caregiver-provider or provider-provider, over a digital (i.e. broadband) connection. This often is used to substitute a face to face meeting such as consults, and saves time and cost in travel. Store-and-forward is when data is collected, recorded, and then sent on to a provider. For example, a patient's' digital health history file including x-rays and notes, being securely transmitted electronically to evaluate the current case. Remote patient monitoring includes patients' medical and health data being collected and transferred to a provider elsewhere who can continue to monitor the data and any changes that may occur. This may best suit cases that require ongoing care such as rehabilitation, chronic care, or elderly clients trying to stay in the community in their own homes as opposed to a care facility. Mobile health includes any health information, such as education, monitoring and care, that is present on and supported by mobile communication devices such as cell phones or tablet computers. This might include an application, or text messaging services like appointment reminders or public health warning systems.
Telehealth is a modern form of health care delivery. Telehealth breaks away from traditional health care delivery by using modern telecommunication systems including wireless communication methods. Traditional health is legislated through policy to ensure the safety of medical practitioners and patients. Consequently, since telehealth is a new form of health care delivery that is now gathering momentum in the health sector, many organizations have started to legislate the use of telehealth into policy. In New Zealand, the Medical Council has a statement about telehealth on their website. This illustrates that the medical council has foreseen the importance that telehealth will have on the health system and have started to introduce telehealth legislation to practitioners along with government.
Transition to mainstream
Traditional use of telehealth services has been for specialist treatment. However, there has been a paradigm shift and telehealth is no longer considered a specialist service. This development has ensured that many access barriers are eliminated, as medical professionals are able to use wireless communication technologies to deliver health care. This is evident in rural communities. For individuals living in rural communities, specialist care can be some distance away, particularly in the next major city. Telehealth eliminates this barrier, as health professionals are able to conduct a medical consultation through the use of wireless communication technologies. However, this process is dependent on both parties having Internet access.
Telehealth allows the patient to be monitored between physician office visits which can improve patient health. Telehealth also allows patients to access expertise which is not available in their local area. This remote patient monitoring ability enables patients to stay at home longer and helps avoid unnecessary hospital time. In the long-term, this could potentially result in less burdening of the healthcare system and consumption of resources.
The technological advancement of wireless communication devices is a major development in telehealth. This allows patients to self-monitor their health conditions and to not rely as much on health care professionals. Furthermore, patients are more willing to stay on their treatment plans as they are more invested and included in the process, decision-making is shared. Technological advancement also means that health care professionals are able to use better technologies to treat patients for example in surgery. Technological developments in telehealth are essential to improve health care, especially the delivery of healthcare services, as resources are finite along with an ageing population that is living longer.
Major implications and impacts
Telehealth allows multiple, different disciplines to merge and deliver a much more uniform level of care using the efficiency and accessibility of everyday technology. As telehealth proliferates mainstream healthcare and challenges notions of traditional healthcare delivery, different populations are starting to experience better quality, access and personalised care in their lives.
See Also: Health Promotion
Telehealth can also increase health promotion efforts. These efforts can now be more personalised to the target population and professionals can extend their help into homes or private and safe environments in which patients of individuals can practice, ask and gain health information. Health promotion using telehealth has become increasingly popular in underdeveloped countries where there are very poor physical resources available. There has been a particular push toward mHealth applications as many areas, even underdeveloped ones have mobile phone coverage.
In developed countries, health promotion efforts using telehealth have been met with some success. The Australian hands-free breastfeeding Google Glass application reported promising results in 2014. This application made in collaboration with the Australian Breastfeeding Association and a tech startup called Small World Social, helped new mothers learn how to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is beneficial to infant health and maternal health and is recommended by the World Health Organisation and health organisations all over the world. Widespread breastfeeding can prevent 820,000 infant deaths globally but the practice is often stopped prematurely or intents to do are disrupted due to lack of social support, know-how or other factors. This application gave mother's hands-free information on breastfeeding, instructions on how to breastfeed and also had an option to call a lactation consultant over Google Hangout. When the trial ended, all participants were reported to be confident in breastfeeding.
Health care quality
Theoretically, the whole health system stands to benefit from telehealth. In a UK telehealth trial done in 2011, it was reported that the cost of health could be dramatically reduced with the use of telehealth monitoring. The usual cost of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) per cycle would be around $15,000, with telehealth it was reduced to $800 per patient. In Alaska the Federal Health Care Access Network which connects 3,000 healthcare providers to communities, engaged in 160,000 telehealth consultations from 2001 and saved the state $8.5 million in travel costs for just Medicaid patients. There are indications telehealth consumes fewer resources and requires fewer people to operate it with shorter training periods to implement initiatives.
However, whether or not the standard of health care quality is increasing is quite debatable, with literature refuting such claims. Research is increasingly reporting that clinicians find the process difficult and complex to deal with. Furthermore, there are concerns around informed consent, legality issues as well as legislative issues. Although health care may become affordable with the help of technology, whether or not this care will be "good" is the issue.
- Distance education including continuing medical education, grand rounds, and patient education
- administrative uses including meetings among telehealth networks, supervision, and presentations
- research on telehealth
- online information and health data management
- healthcare system integration
- asset identification, listing, and patient to asset matching, and movement
- overall healthcare system management
- patient movement and remote admission
Limitations and restrictions
While many branches of medicine have wanted to fully embrace telehealth for a long time, there are certain risks and barriers which bar the full amalgamation of telehealth into best practice. For a start, it is dubious as to whether a practitioner can fully leave the "hands-on" experience behind. Although it is predicted that telehealth will replace many consultations and other health interactions, it cannot yet fully replace a physical examination, this is particularly so in diagnostics, rehabilitation or mental health.
The benefits posed by telehealth challenge the normative means of healthcare delivery set in both legislation and practice. Therefore, the growing prominence of telehealth is starting to underscore the need for updated regulations, guidelines and legislation which reflect the current and future trends of healthcare practices. Telehealth enables timely and flexible care to patients wherever they may be; although this is a benefit, it also poses threats to privacy, safety, medical licensing and reimbursement. When a clinician and patient are in different locations, it is difficult to determine which laws apply to the context. Once healthcare crosses borders different state bodies are involved in order to regulate and maintain the level of care that is warranted to the patient or telehealth consumer. As it stands, telehealth is complex with many grey areas when put into practice especially as it crosses borders. This effectively limits the potential benefits of telehealth.
An example of these limitations include the current American reimbursement infrastructure, where Medicare will reimburse for telehealth services only when a patient is living in an area where specialists are in shortage, or in particular rural counties. The area is defined by whether it is a medical facility as opposed to a patient's' home. The site that the practitioner is in, however, is unrestricted. Medicare will only reimburse live video (synchronous) type services, not store-and-forward, mhealth or remote patient monitoring (if it does not involve live-video). Some insurers currently will reimburse telehealth, but not all yet. So providers and patients must go to the extra effort of finding the correct insurers before continuing. Again in America, states generally tend to require that clinicians are licensed to practice in the surgery' state, therefore they can only provide their service if licensed in an area that they do not live in themselves.
More specific and widely reaching laws, legislations and regulations will have to evolve with the technology. They will have to be fully agreed upon, for example, will all clinicians need full licensing in every community they provide telehealth services too, or could there be a limited use telehealth licence? Would the limited use licence cover all potential telehealth interventions, or only some? Who would be responsible if an emergency was occurring and the practitioner could not provide immediate help – would someone else have to be in the room with the patient at all consult times? Which state, city or country would the law apply in when a breach or malpractice occurred?
A major legal action prompt in telehealth thus far has been issues surrounding online prescribing and whether an appropriate clinician-patient relationship can be established online to make prescribing safe, making this an area that requires particular scrutiny. It may be required that the practitioner and patient involved must meet in person at least once before online prescribing can occur, or that at least a live-video conference must occur, not just impersonal questionnaires or surveys to determine need.
Informed consent is another issue – should the patient give informed consent to receive online care before it starts? Or will it be implied if it is care that can only practically be given over distance? When telehealth includes the possibility for technical problems such as transmission errors or security breaches or storage which impact on ability to communicate, it may be wise to obtain informed consent in person first, as well as having backup options for when technical issues occur. In person, a patient can see who is involved in their care (namely themselves and their clinician in a consult), but online there will be other involved such as the technology providers, therefore consent may need to involve disclosure of anyone involved in the transmission of the information and the security that will keep their information private, and any legal malpractice cases may need to involve all of those involved as opposed to what would usually just be the practitioner.
The state of the market
The rate of adoption of telehealth services in any jurisdiction is frequently influenced by factors such as the adequacy and cost of existing conventional health services in meeting patient needs; the policies of governments and/or insurers with respect to coverage and payment for telehealth services; and medical licensing requirements that may inhibit or deter the provision of telehealth second opinions or primary consultations by physicians.
Projections for the growth of the telehealth market are optimistic, and much of this optimism is predicated upon the increasing demand for remote medical care. According to a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers say they would use telehealth. At present, several major companies along with a bevvy of startups are working to develop a leading presence in the field.
In the UK, the Government's Care Services minister, Paul Burstow, has stated that telehealth and telecare would be extended over the next five years (2012–2017) to reach three million people.
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