Twenty years ago, telehealth was more concept than reality, popular among visionaries but absent from most doctors’ offices. Today, telehealth is a rapidly growing industry changing the way practitioners and patients interact. The technology and the capabilities change almost daily.
In order to implement telemedicine services and stay at the leading edge of healthcare, physicians and other medical professionals need a better understanding of the basics of this growing trend in healthcare.
What Exactly Is Telehealth?
In the broadest sense, telehealth is any health service provided using telecommunication technology. Smartphone apps, wearable tech, video conferencing, and protected email accounts could all be considered “telehealth.”
While many telehealth technologies, like video conferencing or real-time vital monitoring, are new phenomena, telehealth as a concept is not. Telehealth, especially teleradiology, dates to the 1960s. Healthcare providers have been using telehealth for over 50 years to deliver care to rural populations.
Telehealth has evolved since its humble beginnings. As consumer technologies advance at a breakneck pace, more people have access to cheaper smartphones, computers and other connected devices. This consumer tech revolution has created an unprecedented opportunity for healthcare providers to care for their patients. These tools can help providers increase the quality and convenience of care for all patients, not just underserved populations.
What’s the Difference Between Telehealth and Telemedicine?
Telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably – an approach taken by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), which notes that it “largely views telemedicine and telehealth to be interchangeable terms, encompassing a wide definition of remote healthcare, although telehealth may not always involve clinical care.”
CMS (and many insurers) have more formal definitions. According to CMS, telemedicine is a service “permitting two-way, real time interactive communication between the patient, and the physician or practitioner at the distant site.” By this definition, telemedicine is a specific subset of telehealth that uses live conferencing between providers and patients.
Which Conditions Can Be Treated Via Telemedicine?
While telehealth consult services can be used in almost any specialty, telemedicine has a smaller number of conditions that can be directly diagnosed. The treatable conditions are limited by the nature of telemedicine and by insurers’ reimbursement policies. While multiple specialties can treat and bill for certain conditions, primary care physicians have the most flexibility.
Here is a list of some of the many conditions primary care physicians can feasibly treat via telemedicine. These conditions can be reliably identified, explained and treated without a complex physical examination:
- Cold and flu symptoms
- Poison ivy and rashes
- Pink eye
- Urinary tract infection
- Respiratory infection
- Sinus problems
- Ear infection
- Colds and flu
- Insect bites
- Sore throats
- Sprains and strains
- Bladder infections
- Sports injuries
Remember, the exact list of billable conditions is determined by your patients’ insurance providers. Check with your insurers for a complete list of billable conditions before using telemedicine.
Telehealth is a wide-ranging topic that includes telemedicine under it. In order to get started offering telehealth services, providers should first get a sense of what part of their practice is amenable to it. Next week, we’ll examine which specialties best lend themselves to telemedicine, and why.
To read more about telehealth and telemedicine, click here to download our full free report, “Telehealth in a Nutshell.”