What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is any healthcare performed remotely through technology. This could range from a videoconference doctor’s visit to a text message appointment reminder.  Telehealth may be used as a way to transcend barriers to care such as distance, lack of transportation, or—as in cases such as the COVID-19 pandemic—to limit the spread of infectious disease. 

Telehealth vs Telemedicine

Telehealth and Telemedicine are often used interchangeably, but their meanings differ. Their definitions are not entirely standardized, so different sources mean slightly different things when they use these terms. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HRSA), for example, defines telemedicine a little bit differently than does the World Health Organization.  Generally, though, Telemedicine refers to clinical services directly between a physician and a patient. This could be a radiologist going over a person’s scan via videoconferencing. Talkspace, a popular therapy app in which patients text with a counselor, would commonly be considered telemedicine. Any doctor’s appointment facilitated  through video or phone is telemedicine. Telehealth is an umbrella term meaning any healthcare done remotely. This can include telemedicine, but encompasses a broader range of services. A doctor monitoring a patient’s vital signs through technology would be considered telehealth, but not necessarily telemedicine because it does not involve direct communication between doctor and patient. E-prescriptions are also telehealth. Even appointment reminders received through text message would be considered telehealth.

Modalities

There are a few common modalities for providing telehealth services. Each modality is a general category that includes varied services.

Live Video

Live video is a direct interaction between a patient and any type of physician. The Center for Connected Health Policy states that live video can be used for consultative, diagnostic, or treatment purposes.  Live video can be used to discuss and monitor patient health regardless of location. It may be used when distance is a barrier, or for patients with limited mobility. Live video can also be used for patients who are incarcerated. It can also be useful for reasons of privacy—such as when a patient is hesitant to come into the office for a psychiatric evaluation. In addition, it allows one language translator to provide translation services to multiple locations, which is considered cost-effective.

Mobile Health

Mobile Health is the provision of healthcare and health data via mobile devices. It often includes apps, such as physical therapy apps where the physical therapist uploads exercise videos for the patient to follow. It can also include alerts about disease outbreaks.  Some mobile apps are regulated by the FDA. This is the case if they are used to transmit patient-specific medical information, are used as an extension of a medical device, or use patient health information to diagnose or treat a patient.

Remote Patient Monitoring

Remote Patient Monitoring is the use of technology to collect medical information from patients in one location to healthcare providers in another. This is often used to help prevent readmission by monitoring trackable health data such as vital signs, blood sugar, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate. Healthcare professionals keep track of this data remotely.  These programs can keep people healthy. They can also allow older adults or people with disabilities to live at home longer rather than go to a nursing home.

Store-and-Forward

Store-and-Forward is the transmission of medical information, such as x-rays or photos, through secure electronic communication. This generally takes place between medical providers—such as the x-ray technologist and radiologist—as opposed to between physician and patient. This can allow for a physician in one location to send medical information to a specialist in a different location.  The specialist assessing the information is usually doing so in their own time and not during an appointment. Because the patient and the specialist do not need to make an appointment and don’t have to be in the same location, this can expand access to quality care.  

History

According to the World Health Organization, “Telemedicine can be traced back to the mid to late 19th century, with one of the first published accounts occurring in the early 20th century when electrocardiograph data were transmitted over telephone wires.”  In this case, the WHO seems to be using telehealth and telemedicine interchangeably.   The modern version of telehealth began in the 1960’s, brought on by the military and space technology. Technological advancement in recent decades—including the rise of the Internet—have made telehealth more common. According to the WHO, “The replacement of analogue forms of communication with digital methods…enabled health care organizations to envision and implement new and more efficient ways of providing care.”

Applications for Addiction and Mental Health Treatment

Telehealth for treating substance use and mental health disorders is useful in a number of situations. Patients in rural areas who may not have access to addiction care can access treatment through technology. This is especially important because some rural states, such as West Virginia, have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.  Telehealth can also be used to continue to treat patients after they have stepped down from an in-person treatment regimen such as an Intensive Outpatient or Outpatient program. As Substance Use Disorders are chronic—never “cured”—people can continue to receive care remotely after they have been through formal treatment. Another potential use for telehealth is teletherapy for people who come from backgrounds where mental health care is stigmatized.  In addition, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth is useful when it is unsafe to meet in person.

If You are Struggling With a Substance Use or Mental Health Disorder During the COVID-19 Pandemic, There is Help

Amatus Recovery Centers is open and here for you throughout the crisis. We offer telehealth services, such as videoconferencing for our family support groups, in order to limit visitors and encourage social distancing. In addition, we are receiving hospital-grade sanitization at each of our facilities, ensuring it is safe for people to receive treatment during this time. At each of our recovery centers across the country, our compassionate staff will help you build healthy tools to help you thrive in long-term recovery. If you need help and are interested in learning more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.

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