It’s no secret that medical facilities are understaffed, overcrowded, and often underfunded. Patients seem to be shipped in by the truckload, and factors like staffing shortages and doctor burnout have many professionals worrying about increased wait times and decreased patient satisfaction.
Unnecessary hospital visits only expound these common problems, choking up emergency departments, urgent care facilities, and even doctor’s offices with patients who would have been just fine at home.
Luckily, the industry of telehealth has made great strides in reducing these visits, especially in the fields of home care, telemonitoring, and chronic illnesses. Add to that the possibility that Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) may be expanding the number of telehealth services covered by Medicare, and you’ve got a full-blown industry boom brewing.
But how can hospitals and medical practices leverage telehealth to save time, money, and mental energy?
Where is telehealth most effective?
Telehealth Reduces Nursing Home Hospitalizations
Nursing homes are only growing more crowded as one of the largest generations — the Baby Boomers — age. And since the elderly are frequently hospitalized for numerous different reasons, nursing homes are a perfect launching point for telehealth services.
Some nursing homes have already partnered with medical groups and vendors to use long-distance doctor’s visits to lighten the load on nearby hospitals.
Central Island Healthcare, a nursing facility in New York, had telemedicine experts train their nurses. These nurses were then able to use medical tablets and medical grade PCs to give their nursing home residents long-distance doctor visits without leaving their rooms. Instead of constantly shuttling nursing home residents to and from hospitals, the nurses were able to help the patients get diagnosed and even prescribed medication over a Skype-style video chat with a doctor.
This reduced hospital visits of nursing home residents from 25 a month to 14. Doctors, over medical computers, were able to see the patients and help them, but without all of the attendant hassle for both parties.
Another added benefit of telehealth for elderly patients — they’re unlikely to contract a nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infection from the comfort of their own rooms. And considering that the elderly are typically at the most risk from common hospital-acquired infections like pneumonia, telehealth could literally save lives.
What About Nursing Hotlines? Do They Work?
Perhaps one of the earliest forms of telehealth is “telephone triage,” more commonly known these days as a “nurse hotline.” Nurse hotlines allow patients to call a number — usually provided by their insurance — to get quick medical advice from a nurse.
There’s little doubt to their efficacy — a study by the University of Southampton in the UK found that a well-staffed nurse hotline can reduce the number of both ambulance dispatches and hospital admissions in the area, with a relatively low error rate.
However, telephone triage lacks the greatest strength of modern telehealth: nurses aren’t allowed to diagnose conditions or prescribe medication. For those procedures, a doctor is required.
Plus, the nurses are only able to talk to the patient over the phone, and can’t see them or be shown symptoms or wounds. And while nurses are incredible at their jobs, that’s a difficult position for any clinician to be in. Modern telehealth devices far surpass the limitations of a simple phone call, and smartphones, tablets and computers can all be used to upgrade the old telephone triage hotlines into full-scale telehealth services.
Telehealth Monitoring Leads to Fewer Visits to the Emergency Room
Close to 75% of all healthcare expenditures are spent on chronic illnesses. They’re also the cause of 70% of the deaths in the United States.
However, telehealth monitoring may be a highly effective weapon to combat this problem. Telehealth monitoring uses a device to record vitals like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. A home monitor that is integrated with a medical device computer then sends the information to the doctor, who is able to monitor sudden drops and changes. With doctors receiving real-time updates, it’s far easier to treat flare-ups and complications of a patient’s diagnosed chronic illness.
This monitoring can also take the form of digital doctor’s appointments, where the doctor speaks to the patient over a video call. The appointment then goes much like any regular in-person visit, especially when the doctor already has all the patient’s vitals courtesy of the telemonitoring system.
An exhaustive report of multiple studies from medical groups, universities, and hospitals found a wealth of useful data about how telemedicine, particularly telehealth monitoring, made a huge difference to cost, engagement, hospital admissions, and mortality rates for patients with chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, pulmonary disease, and heart disease.
Over multiple studies, mortality rates from chronic diseases monitored by telehealth were reduced anywhere from 15% to 56% depending on the study. After having a stroke, patients who used telehealth monitoring had a reduced mortality rate of 25% for the first year after the original stroke.
The study concluded that a massive wealth of evidence points to telehealth “reducing hospitalization and emergency department visits,” “preventing and/or limiting illness severity,” which resulted in “improved health outcomes.”
A separate study of veterans with chronic illnesses found a 19% reduction in hospital admissions and a 25% reduction in the number of bed days. They also found that the telehealth treatment cost less, and produced excellent satisfaction scores from the veterans who used it.
What Does the Future of Medicine Look Like?
The future has already arrived for many telehealth technologies.
Dedicated virtual care centers, facilities whose sole purpose is to provide long-distance care for patients, already exist. Mercy Virtual, a dedicated virtual hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri, doesn’t have a single patient bed on the premises. Instead, nurses, clinicians, and doctors in the facility (or working remotely) communicate solely via medical computers to diagnose and treat patients.
Another sci-fi tech, virtual reality, is already being used to train doctors and perform long-distance surgery. In addition, there is some evidence that virtual reality immersion techniques, used from the safety of home, could be used by psychiatrists and patients to treat disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even intense phobias.
Obviously, some of these more advanced techniques are in their infancy, but it does show that telehealth is being taken seriously as a treatment style that could have huge positive benefits.
It’s clear that healthcare has a problem with rising costs, patient wait times, and clinician burnout. Luckily, cutting-edge telehealth technology like camera-equipped medical tablets and medical computers, along with telehealth training, could take a massive load off of overworked healthcare professionals.
Right now, only 15% of physician practices are using telemedicine. Any new technology takes time to proliferate, but with telehealth showing huge leaps in cost savings, patient health, and reduced hospital visits, it’s a technology that simply can’t be ignored.
How can your practice benefit best from telehealth? Is your medical computer equipment up to the task of the streaming, video-recording, multimedia demands of the burgeoning telehealth future?
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