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What is the Difference Between Telemedicine and Telehealth?

Terminology for new developments in the healthcare field often feels interchangeable. This is the case with telemedicine and telehealth, two terms used to describe very similar services. Even the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) considers these terms interchangeable, since both include patient monitoring, consultations, remote health applications, education, and transmission of diagnostics.

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Of the two, telemedicine is the older term, though telehealth has shown rapid growth. Add in the relatively new telecare, and it becomes even more confusing. Though these terms may be used interchangeably, there are slight differences.

Differences of Opinion within the Industry

With the public's changing views of healthcare (itself a relatively recent term), it's no surprise that telemedicine and telehealth have differing yet remarkably similar meanings and purposes. Healthcare has come to mean more than the service one receives at a medical facility, be it clinic or hospital. Instead, it encompasses a whole-body approach to wellness, as well as the self-management of one's health and a willingness to embrace and promote patient responsibility.

Different organizations have weighed in on the terminology. According to the ATA, telemedicine involves the exchange of medical information "via electronic communications" with the intent of improving the patient's health. So, similar to a traditional, in-office doctor visit. The organization goes on to describe the available electronic communication devices, including smartphones, e-mail, and video chat.

The ATA also points out that telemedicine is not its own specialty. Rather, it is simply another delivery mechanism for clinical care. This is evident when you consider billing, which typically uses the same coding and fee structure for telemedicine services as is used for in-office visits. As telemedicine allows such a wide range of patient/provider interactions – including patient portals, remote monitoring of symptoms, patient consultations, and transmission of diagnostics – the ATA considers that it falls under the umbrella of healthcare, and therefore the term telemedicine may be used interchangeably with telehealth.

The health IT group, Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), does not quite agree with the ATA. They took their cue from the Department of Health and Human Services. Both groups consider telemedicine to cover the clinical care aspect, while telehealth includes non-clinical applications. These include trainings for medical providers, continuing education, and even administrative meetings. Essentially, any technology used to support or promote healthcare is telehealth, while the actual application of healthcare, i.e. the clinical setting, is telemedicine. So, in this instance, telehealth is the broad term and telemedicine is the subcategory.

The Differences and Definitions

The easiest way to understand the differences between telemedicine, telehealth, and even telecare is to first understand the definitions of each term.

  • Telemedicine: Refers specifically to the clinical application of healthcare through technology means, i.e. electronic communications. Typically, this includes interactions between physician and patient for the purposes of diagnosing and treating medical conditions. However, it may also include consultations between providers and the digital transmission of medical records and diagnostic images. Communication portals include kiosks, video chat, calls, and transmissions from "smart" devices.
  • Telehealth: Refers to the broad range of healthcare services via remote communication. This includes telemedicine services such as remote monitoring of chronic conditions and consultations between patients and physicians. However, it also includes healthcare education, remote collaborations between medical professionals, and the technologies themselves, such as monitoring devices and software.
  • Telecare: Refers to the technologies patients use to monitor health and wellness, including computers, smartphones, medical alert systems, monitoring devices, and gadgets that track patients during daily living, including caloric intake, pulse, and physical activity.
  • As technologies change and the field continues to grow, these definitions will likely change as well. For now, most providers continue using these terms interchangeably without causing any type of confusion as to their meaning.

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