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What is Telehealth and How Does It Work?

Telehealth has been around for several years, but the current COVID-19 crisis is leading more and more people to rely on it for health checkups and initial assessments before making a trip to the hospital. Some companies even offer free telehealth appointments to certain qualified individuals.

Despite its surge in popularity, many people are still unfamiliar with telehealth, what it is and how it works. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Telehealth basics
  • Types of telehealth
  • What telehealth can’t do
  • Who should use telehealth?
  • How you can access telehealth

Telehealth basics

At its simplest, telehealth is a patient receiving a medical consultation through any kind of remote communication. The doctors and registered nurses who offer telehealth consultations are the same ones who take regular appointments. They are trained, licensed and offer the same level of expertise you would get with your regular doctor or local specialist. In fact, sometimes people can get telehealth appointments with their usual doctor in place of their regular in-person checkups.

Types of telehealth

There are a few different types of telehealth that people can benefit from depending on their needs. Each has its own advantages and is used by different medical specialties to get doctors the right information.

Live video conferencing

This is the most popular kind of telehealth and the one you’ll often see advertised on TV and online. Patients set an appointment time, usually with an app or website, and then call the doctor for their consultation. Sometimes this is done over the phone, however these days it’s more often through a video chat on a smartphone, tablet or computer. In practice, it works no differently than a FaceTime or Skype call.

This is the form of telehealth most often used for general checkups and psychiatrists because less physical data needs to be collected. Doctors can talk to patients to see how they’re feeling, what’s bothering them, and get an overall feel for their health. In some cases, doctors can even write prescriptions based on what they learn and their patients’ medical history.

Store and forward

Store and forward (also known as asynchronous telehealth) is when photos and videos are taken of an affected area and then forwarded to a doctor. This is a great tool for doctors like dermatologists, since they can observe issues like rashes, eczema, psoriasis and hair loss and offer a diagnosis without a physical consultation. It’s also good for patients since they don’t need to set a specific time to talk to a doctor, they just upload their photos and wait for a message.

Remote patient monitoring

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) uses electronic devices to collect patient’s data and send it to doctors. This is becoming more popular as everyday devices like Apple Watches and Fitbits can monitor heart rates and track physical activity.

There are also specialized devices that can be sent to patients and used to gather information on things like blood pressure, blood oxygen levels and blood sugar for diabetics. This is ideal for people with chronic conditions or if doctors need more information than can be gained from a conversation alone.

What telehealth can’t do

Telehealth is convenient, but it has limitations. Despite the advancements in remote patient monitoring, some tests, like a strep throat swab, have to be performed by a doctor in an office setting. The good news is there are lots of wellness tests that you can take at home and then send to a lab to get results.

As telehealth continues to expand, it’s likely that more at-home tests will be developed for people to use. Until then, the best thing to do is simply talk to your doctor about what tests you may need and see what is available.

Also, it should be noted that telehealth should never be used in an emergency, such as if someone has ingested a poisonous substance or severely hurt themselves. When in doubt, always call 911 for a life-threatening situation.

Who should use telehealth?

Telehealth can be a great resource for anyone, particularly when considering the limitations created by a global pandemic. Elective procedures have been postponed in most places, meaning things like annual checkups have been put on hold. Early detection is key in preventing serious consequences from things like heart disease and cancer, which is why many people (understandably) don’t want to wait to talk to their doctor. This is especially true since, at the time of this writing, there is no defined end date for the lockdowns imposed across the country.

Even after the pandemic ends and life begins to return to normal, telehealth will continue to be a great resource for people who need a convenient way to communicate with their doctor. For many older Americans, mobility becomes an issue and getting out to a doctor’s office can become more and more difficult. Stay-at-home parents might not want to bring all their kids to a doctor’s office if just one has the sniffles. Or, if someone has a history with a medical condition such as UTIs, a quick telehealth conversation with a doctor from the comfort of their couch might be all it takes for the doctor to write a prescription, saving an unnecessary trip and time sitting in the waiting room.

How you can access telehealth

Many insurance providers are making telehealth service free as part of their coverage plans. Other companies are working with the healthcare industry to get access to the people who need it most. Through Life Line Screening, qualified individuals aged 65+ can get free access to telehealth services. Patients can get a private, 1-on-1 consultation with a licensed nurse practitioner via telephone, tablet or computer that covers:

  • A full review of your personal medical and family history
  • An in-depth proprietary health risk assessment
  • Screenings for memory loss, depression, fall risk, blood pressure and more
  • A comprehensive, 10+ page personalized prevention plan with a screening schedule for the next 5–10 years that will be forwarded to your doctor
  • A full report explaining all the additional Medicare-covered screenings that you are entitled to at no cost based on your health and risk factors
  • The ability to discuss any concerns you may have about the coronavirus