Telehealth: A Modern Path to Wellness
I must admit, the first thing I imagined when I heard the word "telehealth" was someone sending healing interventions through mental telepathy. Luckily, after learning more about the concept, I breathed a sigh of relief. Telehealth is a sound, evidence-based practice that has gained momentum over the years due to challenges in delivering health care to rural or socially isolated populations. If you fit into one of these categories, perhaps telehealth can serve as a modern path to your physical and emotional wellness.
What is Telehealth?
In essence, telehealth is the delivery of health care, which can include health information and education as well as mental health care, through the use of technology. For instance, telehealth could include any of the following:
- A doctor/patient appointment that takes place over a live webcam, with the doctor in his or her office and the patient at home
- A patient completing a doctor-recommended online workshop on disease management or mental health skills instead of receiving the workshop in person
- A teleconference between physicians of multiple disciplines to discuss a complex case and to decide on a treatment plan
- A home monitoring system that relays health information from the patient's home to the doctor's office
- A call center staffed by licensed nurses or mental health professionals who can offer recommendations over the phone
The term "telehealth" is often used interchangeably with "telemedicine," although the American Telemedicine Association considers telehealth a broader term. The Association defines telemedicine as "the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients' health status." In contrast, telehealth also includes health education and other non-medical services.
Who Uses Telehealth?
Where telehealth is delivered depends on the level and type of technology available in a geographic region. But telehealth has been increasing in popularity as a way to deliver preventive medicine as well as to manage chronic medical problems. Many rural health and mental health clinics have embraced telehealth as a way to reach their most isolated patients because monitoring and communication can be accomplished from afar.
Does Telehealth Work?
I've been encouraged by recent research. For instance, a study published in The Gerontologist in 2012 focused on how well telehealth interventions worked for homebound elders with heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The researchers found that those who received telehealth interventions showed greater increases in health and social functioning than those who received traditional medical care. Also, the group that did not receive any telehealth interventions made more trips to the emergency room than the telehealth group. The researchers suggested that telehealth could be a valuable option for those who cannot make it to regular medical appointments due to transportation limitations, disability, or isolation.
How Do I Find Telehealth?
If you are in a situation that makes it difficult to get to your doctor or mental health clinician, telehealth could be a great option for you. Telehealth is not a separate specialty, so any licensed professional may be able to provide telehealth if the technology is available. Start by asking your health care team if any services could be provided from a distance. Another option is to contact your county health or mental health department - several rural departments have received grants to implement telehealth services. Finally, if you are a veteran, contact your local VA health center to see if any telehealth services are offered through its clinics or a nearby VA hospital.
Gellis, Z. D., Kenaley, B., McGinty, J., Bardelli, E., Davitt, J., & Ten Have, T. (2012). Outcomes of a telehealth intervention for homebound older adults with heart or chronic respiratory failure: A randomized controlled trial. The Gerontologist, 52(4), 541-552.