Telemedicine, or telehealth, is a topic that is getting a lot of discussion in the health care field. As with many topics in any field that get a “lot of discussion,” there can be misunderstanding about what the term really means. So what is “telemedicine?”
According to the American Telemedicine Association, telemedicine “is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.” Telemedicine is not a new or separate specialty of medicine. Instead, it is a way of delivering health care services that does not involve a face-to-face consultation. The services delivered include patient consultations, consultations between providers, patient monitoring, providing health and medical information, and medical education for health professionals. The types of health care professionals who may use telemedicine varies from state-to-state. Some states limit the term to services provided by physicians, but in some states, dentists, chiropractors, psychologists, speech therapists, or dietitians may be telemedicine providers.
The term “electronic communications” used in the Association’s definition is a broad one. If you call a physician on the phone and ask her a question, is that telemedicine? State laws often define telemedicine as including only certain technologies. For example, in Florida, state regulations say that “telemedicine” does not include “the provision of health care services only through an audio only telephone, email messages, text messages, facsimile transmission, U.S. Mail or other parcel service, or any combination thereof.” The definition in Louisiana law says that telemedicine uses “interactive telecommunication technology that enables a health care practitioner and a patient at two locations separated by distance to interact via two-way video and audio transmissions simultaneously.” The law also goes on to say that the term does not include telephone conversations, electronic mail messages between a health care practitioner and patient, or “a true consultation.”
Almost every state has laws or regulations relating to telemedicine. It is easy to see why the practice is becoming so popular. Telemedicine can deliver outcomes that are as good as the outcomes from traditional face-to-face consultations. It can deliver those outcomes at a significantly lower cost. Patients with mobility issues will have an easier time seeing or consulting with their health care provider. Providers and patients in remote areas will also benefit from easy, efficient communication. Telemedicine is an important part of the nation’s health care system, and we can expect it to become even more important in the future.