Telemedicine: Uses, benefits, and disadvantages

Telemedicine is a method by which medical care is provided remotely, usually through video chat. Telemedicine offers a variety of opportunities for patients and health care providers alike.

A wide range of treatment options can be accessed via telemedicine services, including consultations with primary care, psychotherapy, physical therapy and even some emergency services.

Read on to read more about telemedicine’s benefits and disadvantages.

What is telemedicine? 

Video chat is one method of providing telemedicine.
Video chat is one method of providing telemedicine.

Telemedicine uses digital devices such as computers and smartphones to deliver healthcare. Telemedicine uses video-conferencing in most cases. Some providers however choose to provide care through email or telephone messaging.

Many people use their usual healthcare provider for telemedicine. Others use a dedicated telemedicine app to access the virtual care.

Telemedicine may be used by doctors and patients for:

  • assess whether or not the patient needs treatment in person
  • provide certain kinds of medical care, such as mental health treatment and assessments for minor infections
  • write or renew prescriptions
  • offer certain types of therapy, such as speech and physical therapy

Telemedicine is effective in cases where the patient needs to exert physical distance or is unable to physically visit a healthcare facility.

Benefits

Evidence finds that telemedicine works widely, even for severe medical conditions.

A 2017 meta-analysis and systematic review of telemedicine use in treating chronic heart failure, for example , found benefits. These included lower admission rates, shorter stays in hospitals and less deaths.

The following sections will discuss some of the potential benefits for patients and healthcare providers.

Benefits for patients

Telemedicine has the potential to help treat a range of medical conditions. When a person seeks care from a qualified physician, it is most successful and provides clear details of their symptoms.

Some other benefits of telemedicine include:

  • Lower costs: Some research suggests that people who use telemedicine spend less time in the hospital, providing cost savings. Also, less commuting time may mean fewer secondary expenses, such as childcare and gas.
  • Improved access to care: Telemedicine makes it easier for people with disabilities to access care. It can also improve access for other populations, including older adults, people who are geographically isolated, and those who are incarcerated.
  • Preventive care: Telemedicine may make it easier for people to access preventive care that improves their long-term health. This is especially true for people with financial or geographic barriers to quality care. For instance, a 2012 study of people with coronary artery disease found that preventive telemedicine improved health outcomes.
  • Convenience: Telemedicine allows people to access care in the comfort and privacy of their own home. This may mean that a person does not have to take time off of work or arrange childcare.
  • Slowing the spread of infection: Going to the doctor’s office means being around people who may be sick, often in close quarters. This can be particularly dangerous for people with underlying conditions or weak immune systems. Telemedicine eliminates the risk of picking up an infection at the doctor’s office.

Benefits for healthcare providers

Healthcare providers who offer telemedicine services may gain several benefits, including:

  • Reduced overhead expenses: Providers who offer telemedicine services may incur fewer overhead costs. For example, they may pay less for front desk support or be able to invest in an office space with fewer exam rooms.
  • Additional revenue stream: Clinicians may find that telemedicine supplements their income because it allows them to provide care to more patients.
  • Less exposure to illness and infections: When providers see patients remotely, they do not have to worry about exposure to any pathogens the patient may carry.
  • Patient satisfaction: When a patient does not have to travel to the office or wait for care, they may be happier with their provider.

Disadvantages

Telemedicine, however, may not match every person or every circumstance. There are several possible disadvantages to the use of telemedicine over traditional forms of treatment.

The following articles discuss certain disadvantages for patients and health care providers.

Disadvantages for patients

Telemedicine is not an appropriate fit for all patients. Some drawbacks of this kind of treatment include:

  • Insurance coverage: Not all insurers cover telemedicine. Only 26 states currently require insurers to cover or reimburse the costs of telemedicine. However, these laws are constantly changing.
  • Protecting medical data: Hackers and other criminals may be able to access a patient’s medical data, especially if the patient accesses telemedicine on a public network or via an unencrypted channel.
  • Care delays: When a person needs emergency care, accessing telemedicine first may delay treatment, particularly since a doctor cannot provide life saving care or laboratory tests digitally.

Disadvantages for healthcare providers

Healthcare providers may also face certain telemedicine related disadvantages, including:

  • Licensing issues: State laws vary, and clinicians may not be able to practice medicine across state lines, depending on the state in which they hold their license and the state in which the patient lives.
  • Technological concerns: Finding the right digital platform to use can be challenging. Also, a weak connection can make it difficult to offer quality care. Clinicians must also ensure that the telemedicine program they use is secure and fully compliant with privacy laws.
  • An inability to examine patients: Providers must rely on patient self-reports during telemedicine sessions. This may require clinicians to ask more questions to ensure that they get a comprehensive health history. If a patient leaves out an important symptom that might have been noticeable during in-person care, this can compromise treatment.

When is telemedicine useful?

For any condition that does not require laboratory testing or physical examination, telemedicine works well. Some forms of ongoing care can even be offered by telemedicine such as psychotherapy.

When there are barriers to treatment — such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a patient living far from a medical facility, or a patient who is unable to transport themselves — providers may expand the list of conditions they are willing to deal with. For example , a doctor may prescribe antibiotics via telemedicine for a likely infection.

Summary

Telemedicine is a convenient option for people who are not allowed to go to the doctor’s office and those who prefer to stay home. It is critical, however, that patients verify the doctor’s credentials providing treatment.

Remote care can mean the difference between prompt treatment and no treatment at all for people with anxiety about leaving home, chronic medical conditions that make catching infections dangerous, and contagious diseases.

Patients should provide detailed medical information, and should show the doctor any rashes, injuries or other visible symptoms requiring treatment where possible.

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