With the growth of digital technology and the increased connectivity between devices, it has been easier than ever to get the products and services that you need right from the comfort of your home. Telemedicine and telehealth platforms have become valuable tools in supporting patient health and wellbeing while allowing physicians and specialists to maintain their practices.
Although telemedicine and telehealth are often used interchangeably, they have distinct differences. Read on to learn more about the difference between the two.
What is the Difference Between Telehealth and Telemedicine?
Telehealth broadly refers to the use of digital information and telecommunication to access and manage health care services. This includes the services provided directly to the patient, as well as the processes involved with improving healthcare delivery as a whole. This can include patient and professional health-related education, public health, and administration.1
How does telemedicine differ and what are telemedicine services commonly offered by physicians? While it is intrinsically related to telehealth, telemedicine is a subset of that and refers specifically to providing the established patient access to care, including diagnosis, treatment, and consultation through telecommunications technology – namely, video-conferencing. You can think of telehealth as a larger umbrella term, while telemedicine is a subcategory of telehealth used to diagnose and treat.2
This type of care generally comes in three forms. Each type of telemedicine may be used on its own or in conjunction with each other to provide more comprehensive care outside of in-person visits.
Synchronous telemedicine is likely what most people are familiar with and involves an online visit with a doctor using video-conferencing software. This allows for real-time interactions for immediate consultation and medical care. This can be done via smartphone, computer, or other smart devices.2
While synchronous telemedicine is usually done at home, it may also take place in a doctor’s office, which may be required based on the insurance provider or state regulations. At the physician’s office, you will still talk remotely with a doctor, but an assistant or telepresenter will be there to help with more hands-on processes, like taking your vital signs or performing a physical exam. This can ultimately provide more robust care.1
Through these virtual video visits, healthcare providers can prescribe medication, diagnose your condition, suggest strategies for home care, and recommend additional care and treatment options. These platforms can be operated by various specialists to provide telemedicine in psychiatry, pediatrics, dermatology, and so on. Nursing call centers can also provide a variation on these virtual visits where they can deliver advice for home care through a simple question-and-answer format. However, even skilled nursing facility call centers generally do not diagnose illnesses or provide prescriptions.3
Remote monitoring, also referred to as self-testing or self-monitoring, involves a patient monitoring their own health using a device that can share test results and data with a physician. This is most common with continuous glucose monitors used for tracking blood sugar levels in those with diabetes. Remote monitoring can also be used with other chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease and asthma.4
Store-and-forward, or asynchronous, telemedicine allows patients and doctors to respond to each other when they have the time. With store-and-forward, patients can send x-rays, test results, medical images, and other data to their specialists when necessary through a patient portal. Think of store-and-forward as a system similar to sending and receiving emails, and this makes it much more convenient for patients and providers with busy schedules. Store-and-forward is common in radiology, pathology, and dermatology.2
Telehealth services are much broader and include everything outside the realm of patient-doctor interactions, though these services can still factor into more convenient personal care.
Established patient portals provide online tools that simplify what you might otherwise have to accomplish via several emails. This includes:
- Setting up appointments and appointment reminders
- Requesting refills for prescriptions or controlled substances
- Receiving and reviewing test results and summaries for prior doctor visits
- Sending general communications to doctors and specialists
Patient portals are often more secure than emails and allow for an easy, single point of communication between patients, doctors, and specialists that can provide access to care.3
Contact Between Doctors
Telehealth also allows communication between doctors. Sometimes doctors need help from other doctors. Virtual consultations allow a primary care doctor to talk with specialists to get more information about a patient’s medical record, diagnosis and treatment options. The doctor can send notes, medical history, test results, and images to the specialist, who can review and respond. The specialist can then set up a virtual consultation with you and your primary care doctor or request an in-person meeting. This can ultimately reduce wait times while eliminating unnecessary in-person appointments at a clinic and the travel required.3
Electronic Personal Health Records
Electronic personal health records essentially provide a record of your health history and past medical care that you can maintain and keep track of on your own. There are a variety of electronic personal health and medical record apps available. While these apps allow you to stay on top of your own health needs, they can also be extremely beneficial in emergencies. When you don’t have access to your actual health records, you can use an electronic PHR to provide emergency personnel with information about current diagnoses, medications that you are taking, drug allergies and interactions, and your primary care provider’s contact information.3
While numerous factors can contribute to a patient’s health, education is one of the best ways to ensure ongoing health. Proper patient education can provide patients with important information about diseases and engage and empower patients to take more active roles in maintaining their health. Using new technologies has offered new and more effective means of reaching a larger scope of patients. This includes portals and tools that provide easy access to informative blogs, evidence summaries, and web resources. This can ultimately contribute to more informed decisions while encouraging patients to seek more information regarding their own health.5
Personal Health Apps
The app market has seen a huge boom, and telehealth has become a part of that. Providers have developed a wide range of apps that are designed to help patients organize their medical information and promote their personal health outside of the doctor’s office. These apps allow patients to:
- Record vital signs
- Record personal health information
- Keep track of calories and meals
- Schedule reminders for regular medication
- Record physical activity metric (daily steps, pulse, calories burned)
- Track sleep cycles and measure sleep quality3
The Benefits of Telemedicine and Telehealth
Telehealth and telemedicine offer numerous benefits to patients and providers. The most prominent is convenience. Patients can get immediate access to reliable care without needing to travel or schedule time off of work. This is particularly beneficial for those who live in rural communities and smaller communities outside of dense, metropolitan regions.
The two also offer a more affordable option for many patients. The average cost of telemedicine virtual visits lands at about $40 to $50. Subtracting any potential travel costs, that ultimately means greater savings on healthcare savings for the patient.
Above all, this emerging technology provides more comprehensive care that emphasizes the fact that patient health exists outside of the doctor’s office or clinic. Used in conjunction with in-person visits, telehealth can keep patients informed and better connected with physicians and specialists.
These two do have their barriers, primarily reimbursement for doctors, as well as technological barriers for those without smart devices or access to reliable internet. Still, implemented properly with excellent clinicians, telemedicine and telehealth can potentially shift the structures of modern healthcare and improve conditions for patients and providers alike.