Telehealth: Technology meets health care
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 18, 2022.
How many times have you heard it said that the internet has changed modern life? Indeed, it's likely changed how you stay in touch with family and friends and buy goods and services. And it's probably even changed how you search for information about health problems.
Several telehealth tools are offered to help you manage your health care and receive the services you need. During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many people used telehealth. People often still use it. Find out more about telehealth.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth is the use of digital information and communication technologies to access health care services remotely and manage your health care. Technologies can include computers and mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones. This may be technology you use from home. Or a nurse or other health care professional may provide telehealth from a medical office or mobile van, such as in rural areas. Telehealth can also be technology that your health care provider uses to improve or support health care services.
The goals of telehealth, sometimes called e-health or m-health (mobile health), include the following:
- Make health care easier to get for people who live in communities that are remote or in the country.
- Keep you and others safe if you have an infectious disease such as COVID-19.
- Offer primary care for many conditions.
- Make services more easily offered or handy for people who have limited ability to move, time or transportation.
- Offer access to medical specialists.
- Improve communication and coordination of care among health care team members and a person getting care.
- Offer advice for self-management of health care.
Many people found telehealth helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic and still use it. Telehealth is being used more often.
Here are many examples of telehealth services that may be helpful for your health care.
Some clinics may use telemedicine to offer remote care. For example, clinics may offer virtual visits. These can allow you to see a health care provider, mental health counselor or a nurse via online video or phone chats.
Virtual visits can offer care in many conditions such as migraines, skin conditions, diabetes, depression, anxiety, colds, coughs and COVID-19. These visits allow you to get care from a provider when you don't need or can't get an in-person visit.
Before your visit, your health care team may send you information or forms to fill out online and return to them. They may also make sure you have the technology you need. They'll check to see if you need to update or install any software or apps too. And they can tell you how to sign on and join the video chat for your visit. Also, the health care team can explain how to use the microphone, camera and text chat. If needed, ask a family member to help you set up the technology you need.
You only need a smartphone, tablet or computer with internet access to join the virtual visit. You can find a comfortable, quiet, private spot to sit during your visit. Your provider also meets from a private place.
Some people may use web or phone-based services for medical care or advice. When you log into a web-based service or call a service that offers primary or urgent care, you're guided through many questions. The provider or nurse practitioner can prescribe drugs. Or they may suggest home care tips or more medical care.
While these services are handy, they have drawbacks:
- Treatment may not be coordinated with your regular provider.
- Important details from your medical history may not be considered.
- The computer-driven model used to make decisions may not be right for you if you have a complex medical history.
- The service doesn't easily allow for you to make decisions with your provider about treatments.
Many technologies allow your provider or health care team to check your health remotely. These technologies include:
- Web-based or mobile apps for uploading data to your provider or health care team. For example, if you have diabetes, you may upload food logs, blood sugar levels and drugs that a nurse checks.
- Devices that measure and wirelessly send data, such as blood pressure, blood sugar and oxygen levels.
- Wearable devices that automatically record and send data. For example, the devices may record data such as heart rate, blood sugar, how you walk, your posture, tremors, physical activity or your sleep.
- Home monitoring devices for older people or people with dementia that can find changes in daily activities such as falls.
- Devices that send notifications to remind you to do exercises or take drugs.
Providers talking to providers
Providers can also use technology to give people better care. For example, in a virtual consultation, primary care providers can get input from specialists in other locations when they have questions about your diagnosis or treatment.
The primary care provider sends exam notes, history, test results, X-rays or other images to the specialist to review. The specialist may answer by email. Or they may do a virtual visit with you at your provider's office. They may also ask for a face-to-face meeting.
In some cases, a nurse or other health care professional may use technology to provide care from a medical office, clinic or mobile van in a rural area. They may call a specialist or provider at a medical clinic to do a remote consult.
These virtual consultations may prevent unnecessary in-person referrals to a specialist. They may also cut wait times for you to see a specialist. And they may remove the need for you to travel to a specialist.
Your primary care clinic may have an online patient portal. These portals offer a safer way of contacting your provider instead of email. A portal provides a safe online tool to do the following:
- Message your provider or a nurse.
- Ask for prescription refills.
- Review test results and summaries of earlier visits.
- Schedule visits or ask for appointment reminders for preventive care.
If your provider is in a large health care system, the portal may also provide one point of contact for any specialists you may see.
Personal health apps
Many apps have been made to help people better organize their medical information in one secure place. These digital tools may help you:
- Store personal health information.
- Record vital signs.
- Calculate and track your calories.
- Schedule reminders for taking drugs.
- Record physical activity such as your daily step count.
Personal health records
An electronic personal health record system (PHR system) is a collection of information about your health that you control and maintain. A PHR app is easy for you to see anytime via a web-enabled device, such as your computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. A PHR also allows you to review your lab results, X-rays and notes from your provider. Your provider may give this to other providers with permission.
In an emergency, a personal health record can quickly give emergency staff vital information. For example, it can show your current conditions, drugs, drug allergies and your provider's contact details.
The potential of telehealth
Technology has the potential to improve the quality of health care. And technology can make it easier for more people to get health care.
Telehealth may offer ways to make health care more efficient, better coordinated and closer to home. You can go to a virtual visit anywhere — such as at home or in your car. And you don't need to travel to go to a virtual visit.
Telehealth can be useful so you can stay home if you're sick or if it's hard for you to travel. And you can use telehealth if you live far from a medical center. And many people have been able to keep distance from others at home and still receive care during the COVID-19 pandemic. And providers can diagnose and treat COVID-19 remotely.
Virtual visits can also provide you with the choice to meet with specialists who don't live where you do.
The limitations of telehealth
Telehealth has potential for better coordinated care. But it also runs the risk of gaps in care, overuse of medical care, inappropriate drug use or unnecessary care. Providers can't do a physical exam in-person, which can affect a diagnosis.
The potential benefits of telehealth services may be limited by other factors, such as costs. Insurance reimbursement for telehealth can vary by state and type of insurance in the U.S. But insurance keeps expanding for telehealth services in the U.S. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance restrictions changed for a period of time. Check with your insurance company to see which providers have virtual visits covered by insurance.
Also, some people who need improved access to care may be limited because of not having internet access or a mobile device. People without internet access may be able to access telehealth services by using wireless internet offered at public places. For example, libraries or community centers may offer wireless internet for virtual visits that can take place in private rooms.
Sometimes technology doesn't work well. It's important to have a plan with your provider to call them by phone if there is an issue with the virtual visit.