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What is Telemedicine? An Introduction to Telehealth Software

The healthcare industry is regularly at the forefront of research and innovation, always looking for better, more efficient ways to treat patients. Part of this is due to the nature of medicine itself and part is due to necessity. As needs and challenges change, healthcare providers must work hard to keep up to continue providing the level of care patients need and deserve.

One particular challenge is the dearth of healthcare providers in rural and underprivileged areas. Every state has areas without enough doctors and clinics, though some are harder hit than others. By 2025, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that America's doctor shortage will reach 90,000. This is due to a combination of the aforementioned lack of doctors in underserved areas and an aging populace dealing with chronic health problems.

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One solution to help fill this void is telemedicine. Thanks to enormous advances in technology, telemedicine (also known as telehealth) allows providers to meet many patients' needs easily and efficiently. Previously, the technology may have been there on the doctors' side, but not the patient's. Today, thanks to smartphones, most people now carry a computer with them at all times. Add in desktops, laptops, and tablets, and the average household has multiple computing devices available at any given time. This easy availability allows doctors and other healthcare providers to consult with patients via a variety of portals, including video chat apps such as Skype and Facetime, or telemedicine kiosks at clinics and other healthcare facilities.

What is Telemedicine?

Simply put, telemedicine uses the Internet and telecommunication infrastructure to treat patients remotely. Platforms for delivering telemedicine services vary, though common methods include videoconferencing and self-service kiosks. It originated as a way to treat those living in remote, underserviced areas. Today, thanks to growth in the mobile health field, telehealth services have expanded to provide convenient, wait-free care for anyone whose condition does not require an in-person visit.

For example, user-friendly home medical devices, such as blood pressure and glucose monitors, make it easier than ever for people monitor their health. Add in health apps for your smartphone and you have a population with quick, easy access to their own vitals who have become increasingly proactive about their health while also becoming more open about alternative healthcare methods.

With telemedicine, the patient can share all of the information from these mobile devices with his or her physician. The provider can then evaluate, diagnose, and treat the patient, approve prescription refills, and more. If the patient requires in-person care, the provider can also recommend that.

Though telemedicine seems designed to work best for primary care physicians, you also find telemedicine clinics. These offices typically offer 24/7 access to an on-call doctor. Telemedicine providers also work with hospitals and large clinics to provide specialists and clinical staff, or as an outsource model, such as teleradiology.

What is Telehealth Software?

Telehealth software is the platform through which telemedicine providers deliver their services. Though there are general providers, some focus on a specialty. There are also different modes of delivery, including:

  • Real-time
  • Store and forward
  • Mobile health
  • Remote patient monitoring
  • Medical consultation and education

Think of the mode as the way the telemedicine provider interacts with the patient or other doctors and shares information.

Real-Time

Also known as synchronous telehealth, real-time is what the average person thinks of when they think of telemedicine. It typically uses video technology to create a live, two-way exchange between a patient and his or her doctor, replacing an in-office visit. These sessions are used for a variety of reasons, including preventive services, follow-up care after an ER or urgent care visit or surgery, and treatment for a suspected illness.

Patients access real-time telemedicine via a variety of portals.

  • Telehealth stations are kiosks installed at the doctor's office and the patient's home (typically only used by long-term care facilities).
  • Secure websites allow the patient to login to the provider's site and see a doctor via video chat.

Applications such as eVisit and Amwell help doctors connect with their patients to diagnose non-emergency conditions, refill prescriptions, and more. Patients may even browse through the app's database of symptoms. The healthcare provider gets a well-designed setup at a reasonable cost, and the technology is easy to use for both doctor and patient.

Store and Forward

Also known as asynchronous health, store and forward allows healthcare providers to easily transmit patient files – including videos, images, and medical history – to other providers at remote locations. The most common software solution here is a secure messaging system.

Store and forward allows specialists to easily review the patient's history and diagnostic testing without actually examining the patient. This is particularly valuable in those underserved areas where meeting with a general practitioner is difficult, much less a specialist. You see this type of telehealth solution most often with dermatologists, ophthalmologists, and radiologists. Typically, the primary physician sends x-rays or other diagnostics to a remote radiologist, or photos of a patient's eyes or skin condition to an ophthalmologist or dermatologist. The specialist then reviews the image and returns his or her diagnosis to the patient's doctor. This allows much quicker treatment of the patient, since he or she no longer has to wait weeks for the initial appointment and referral to a specialist, and then weeks to see the specialist. It also frees up the physician's schedule, allowing him or her to review cases as time permits.

Mobile Health

Also known as mHealth, mobile health includes all telemedicine platforms offered through smartphones, laptops, desktops, and tablets. It represents the majority of all telehealth solutions and includes everything from apps that remind patients to take a medication to those that connect doctors with patients via video chat. Mobile health is part of the push for people to take a more proactive, engaged, preventive approach to their healthcare.

Remote Patient Monitoring

Also known as home telehealth and telemonitoring, remote patient monitoring is exactly what it sounds like: it allows physicians to monitor their patients' health without actually examining them. It's used most often in chronic conditions, such as diabetes. In these cases, patients use a glucose tracker at home. This data transmits to the doctor automatically, requiring no extra effort on the part of the patient or the physician. The doctor receives regular reports, checking in with the patient on a scheduled basis. Some software options also include the ability to perform video consultations for improved treatment with fewer in-office appointments. Remote monitoring allows doctors to detect worsening symptoms and potential health crises early, while treatment is easier.

In addition to monitoring chronic conditions and high-risk patients, doctors use telemonitoring as follow-up care after a hospital or ER discharge. Remote patient monitoring effectively utilizes data offered by mobile health devices, including everything from fitness trackers to ECG sensors.

Medical Consultation and Education

Not all telehealth software is designed for patients. Some of it, particularly medical consultation and education software, benefits healthcare providers. As with store and forward software, physicians review patient files with medical students and collaborate with providers in another location. In addition to sharing files and patient histories, they may use video chat. They also share training, updated medical techniques, and medical news. The applications and possibilities for medical consultation and education software are endless.

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