Telehealth is Happening
Telehealth is an expansion of telemedicine, which provides long-distance clinical care via technology enabled communications. Telehealth encompasses telemedicine and also focuses on delivering health services and information to patients and provider(s) alike. Originally it was used for administrative and educational functions of clinical care; telehealth today uses a countless number of technology solutions. For example, video conferencing and cloud communication have been used by many organizations to enable patients to access key health information and resources from essentially any location.
Physicians can use telehealth to communicate with patients, order patient prescriptions, as well as provide other health services. For example, one of the most common doctor’s office visits is for children with ear infections, but it’s relatively easy to treat. CellScope is a company that has begun marketing an otoscope that fits over the camera on an iPhone. It is used just as an otoscope in a doctor’s office would be, but it takes a video of the child’s ear, which can be sent via secure email to the doctor. Doctors can then actually prescribe medication to the child based on this video.
This is just one of the many technologies that has aided the growth of Telehealth. But how does it work? Unified communications technologies and solutions make it possible. Businesses have used unified communications solutions (explained in the first blog of this series) for years. Healthcare has been slow to adapt the solutions, but as new technology and improved security become more widely available, healthcare and unified communications have begun to work hand-in-hand. Telehealth—like unified communications in business—aims to improve productivity, reduce health care costs, and enhance patient experience.
Unified Communications is Enabling Telehealth
Unified communications technology has allowed healthcare facilities to store data, manage patient records, and share information with other practitioners within or outside of their organization. There are several unified communications technologies that make telehealth possible including:
- Video conferencing (synchronous communication) and
- Store-and-forward (asynchronous communication).
Video conferencing—a type of synchronous communication—is one of the most common forms of unified communication technologies used. This type of telehealth communication requires the presence of both parties simultaneously and takes place like a real-time conversation between patient and doctor. There are also peripheral devices or applications that can be attached to computers or the patient’s cellphone during this conversation, which can aid in an interactive examination.
Another type of telehealth communication is called asynchronous, or Store-and-Forward, communication. This involves obtaining medical data (such as medical images, biosignals, voice recordings, etc.) and then transmitting this data to a health care provider at a convenient time for an offline assessment. Because this type of telehealth does not require the presence of both parties at the same time, it is useful for practices that do not require immediate responses, such as dermatology, radiology, and pathology. For example, a patient that has developed a rash or skin abnormality would take a picture of the affected area and through secure communications, email it to a dermatologist. The dermatologist could then assess the condition and communicate possible diagnosis information to the patient. Then, during the appointment, both parties have the information they need to have an informed, unified discussion.
Telehealth varies widely; it could be as simple as health professionals exchanging information over the phone, or it could be as intricate as robotic surgery between distant facilities. The variety of unified communication technologies used in telehealth adds a new paradigm in healthcare; it exposes options to patients where there weren’t options before.
Now patients can choose to be self-monitored and diagnosed in the comfort of their own homes, instead of visiting the hospital. Or a patient could receive a specialized surgery by a surgeon who is across the country or globe. These capabilities could not be accomplished without unified communications. Telehealth and unified communication places the patient in control of their own health and reverses the old stand-by line into, “Doctor, the patient is ready to see you now.”