Telehealth: The Need for Common Understanding

COVID-19 has made significant changes to businesses and industries across the globe. Naturally, the pandemic’s impact made its way into the healthcare space, accelerating the forced adoption of telehealth medicine by medical professionals, regardless of if they were ready for this kind of solution. Although the concept of telehealth seems fairly straightforward, many medical professionals and health organizations have completely different definitions of what telehealth actually is. 

After interviewing U.S. physicians across a variety of specialties including primary care, dermatology, cardiology, obstetrics/gynecology, oncology and psychiatry, Way to Goal was able to assess just how vastly different everyone’s individual interpretation of this practice is, and why it’s important that we all get on the same page.

After months of research, here’s a quick look at what we uncovered. 

Many Definitions of Telehealth

The inconsistency of the term telehealth was first made obvious in our research of well-known medical organizations. 

Here’s a quick overview of how each of the organizations define telehealth. 

  • HealthIT.gov defines telehealth as “the utilization of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health education, public health and health administration.” Telehealth is not a service. It is a way to improve patient care and physician education. Telehealth expands beyond telemedicine, to cover non-clinical events like appointment scheduling, continuing medical education, and physician training.
  • The American Heart Association defines telehealth as the ability to connect patients to vital health care services through videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults and wireless communications. By increasing access to physicians and specialists, telehealth helps ensure patients receive the right care, at the right place, at the right time.
  • The American Medical Association defines telehealth as a digital health solution that connects the patient and clinician through real-time audio and video technology and can be used as an alternative to traditional in-person care delivery, and in certain circumstances can be used to deliver such care as the diagnosis, consultation, treatment, education, care management and self-management of patients.

Although all of these definitions are insightful, they do leave a lot up to interpretation, which can cause confusion among the average patient. For example, The American Heart Association states that telehealth is a way to receive vital care services while HealthIT clearly states that telehealth is “not a service.” 

The Medical Professionals Perspective  

With the telehealth contradictions among medical organizations, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that medical professionals all have an inconsistent way of defining telehealth. 

One major inconsistency is the language in which professionals use when referring to telehealth. When we took the time to interview these individuals, we found that some would use the term “telehealth” while others prefer to call it “telemedicine” or “virtual visits.” 

According to the World Health Organization, they define telemedicine as a term coined in the 1970s, as the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as computers, the internet, and cell phones to improve patient outcomes by increasing access to care and medical information. 

Most of the medical professionals we interviewed do not believe there is a distinction between telehealth and telemedicine, and they typically used them interchangeably.  Some doctors also believe that telehealth is any digital communication with patients, including sending lab results via portal, e-scheduling, discussing lab results/quick check-up with patients over the phone, etc. Other practitioners feel that only paid virtual visits where patients are discussing and receiving care can be considered telehealth/telemedicine.

Telehealth Beyond the Pandemic  

Our research also found that telehealth most likely won’t be limited to use during the pandemic itself. With all of the inconsistencies in how medical professionals, health organizations, and patients understand what telehealth actually is, it creates a universal problem as we move forward with telehealth as a solution. 

With no clear end in sight to how COVID-19 is impacting our world, it’s important that we all as a society get on the same page when it comes to telehealth capabilities to avoid confusion so hospitals and practices can determine which patient populations this service could be offered to.

In fact, there are many different types of personas that can benefit from telehealth services beyond the COVID-19 outbreak, such as busy working professionals, rural dwellers, those who are immobile, the elderly, snowbirds who travel frequently, nursing home residents, and those who are difficult to reach in general. This is just the beginning of telehealth as a solution, and common understanding is an essential first step. 

Way To Goal Continues To Explore Telehealth 

Telehealth has been part of the healthcare industry for quite some time, however, it wasn’t utilized until recently. With many questions lingering about the capabilities of telehealth and it’s future, there is still plenty left to be discovered. 

Way to Goal’s team of research experts plan to continue to use their extensive knowledge and capabilities to further explore how telehealth will play a role in the future of healthcare. In their most recent national study, Perfectly Virtual, they uncovered a large shift in how telehealth will play a role in the future of healthcare.

Interested in conducting your own research? 

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