What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is an expanding sector of healthcare involving the use of telecommunication tools. A wide range of techniques fall into this sector, including the administrative, preventative, consultative and curative aspects of healthcare. The communication technologies involved are similarly broad, ranging from telephones and e-mail to robotic surgery performed at a distance.

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While the term is a relatively new one, telehealth as a practise dates back to the days when telephones came into widespread use. Something as simple as a doctor calling a specialist for advice about a particular patient is a form of telehealth. The common contemporary practise of patients speaking with a nurse practitioner over the phone in order to discuss their symptoms, receive basic advice, and determine whether or not an in-person consultation is necessary is another example.

Increasingly, patients and health professionals are using videoconferencing in order to conduct virtual appointments. This can be seen as a new version of an old practise, expanded by the newer technological possibilities but not categorically different from a phone consultation. However, there are clearly conditions which are diagnosable via webcam that would not from a phone call alone.

One of the more innovative telehealth practises is remote patient monitoring. This involves the use of devices, such as blood pressure monitors, that transmit data from the patient in their home to a centralised monitoring system. Such an approach has been found to reduce both mortality rates and admissions to emergency rooms. In one study, conducted by the Department of Health’s Whole System Demonstrator and involving over 6000 people, the mortality rate was reduced by 45%.

Another new practise is known as store-and-forward. This is similar to remote patient monitoring in that information about the patient’s vital signs, such as pulse, blood sugar and blood pressure, is gathered and stored electronically. The major difference is that in store-and-forward systems the data is only transmitted intermittently. This makes it more appropriate for patients who are in less danger of experiencing major health events. Once the data is forwarded, appropriate professionals examine it, make any conclusions or recommendations and then transmit their response via phone or e-mail.

Telehealth offers the intriguing possibility of reducing the carbon footprint of many healthcare practises. Patients and professionals alike may avoid the time, cost and environmental consequences of frequent travel. The amount of shipping of records could also be reduced. Studies on this possibility will likely be done.