Originally, telemedicine's purpose was to provide primary care to patients from rural areas who needed medical attention but had limited access to care. Before the pandemic, not many people knew or experienced telemedicine because they were too accustomed to the traditional setup. Today's increasing demand and implementation of remote care are due to the widespread recognition of providers and patients to the many benefits of telemedicine or telehealth.
The majority of the states in the United States perceive telemedicine as the fastest-growing part of the healthcare industry. Healthcare professionals adopt telemedicine because patients opt for practices that offer telehealth services.
There are three main reasons why states are accepting telemedicine:
- Improving access to healthcare for patients in rural and geographically isolated areas
- Mitigating the shortage of physicians and medical specialists
- Reduces costs of healthcare for patients as well as the providers
As more patients and healthcare providers trust telemedicine, it’s becoming clear that it is not only a viable alternative to in-person care, but that patients prefer receiving healthcare services virtually.
With telemedicine, patients don’t have to worry about travel, spend hours in waiting rooms, or take days off work to see their physicians. Patients can simply attend a telemedicine appointment from home and get a diagnosis and treatment in 15 to 30 minutes, rather than devoting an entire day to an in-person visit.
In general, we know that telemedicine facilitates remote care delivery. But how does telemedicine work? And what makes it such a popular and effective healthcare option?
Is telemedicine a legitimate way to provide healthcare?
Telehealth or telemedicine is a legitimate form of providing care that anyone can benefit from. However, it does not correspond to every medical situation. If a patient needs surgical or physical assistance, telehealth works as initial support.
Older populations are often wary of technology. Even younger patients, who are well accustomed to relying on the internet and various apps in their daily lives, might doubt the doctors’ ability to treat them online.
Some healthcare providers might even find the notion of remote medical care suspicious and would hold onto the belief that nothing can replace an in-person examination. However, it’s essential to understand that the goal of telemedicine isn’t to replace in-person medical care any time soon. Instead, telemedicine aims to aid traditional healthcare. It provides a more convenient way to deliver and receive medical care, facilitating follow-up care and the treatment of a variety of less severe medical conditions.
Remote healthcare services are effective when it comes to follow-ups and treating various less severe medical conditions, such as:
- A cold
- Sore throat
- Mental health counseling
- Other common conditions
The capabilities of modern telecommunication technology enable doctors to examine, diagnose, and treat patients in the same way as if the patient were physically present. High definition cameras, for instance, allow doctors to observe the patient’s symptoms and arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Patients can also upload HD images when necessary, giving the doctors all needed information to prescribe appropriate treatments.
To help you better understand how remote care delivery works, let’s look at what telemedicine and telehealth offer.
Telemedicine and telehealth refer to different scopes of healthcare.
The two terms you’ll most often hear whenever there’s talk of remote healthcare services are telemedicine and telehealth. Most people, and even some state laws, use the terms interchangeably when delivering any type of healthcare service remotely.
Both telemedicine and telehealth rely on telecommunication and information technologies to enable healthcare providers to deliver their services to patients at a distance.
There is one crucial difference between the two terms. Telehealth is a more encompassing term that includes an array of medical services and also covers a range of non-clinical events, like:
- Continuing medical examination
- Physician training
- Patient education
Telemedicine strictly refers to remote healthcare services that include examination, diagnosis, and treatment.
Put simply, telehealth often refers to remote medical education, remote doctor-patient consultations, and ongoing medical care for existing conditions. At the same time, telemedicine implies diagnosis and treatment based on the patient's symptoms.
The difference isn’t just semantic. One of the crucial areas in remote healthcare is reimbursement. Both patients and healthcare providers need to know the coverage policies of insurance payers in billing telemedicine and telehealth services. Moreover, states have varying laws and policies regarding the reimbursement of remote healthcare services, so it’s crucial to distinguish between the two terms.
In this article, we’ll be using the terms telemedicine and telehealth interchangeably.
Learning about telehealth modalities helps you better understand remote care delivery.
Telehealth encompasses distinct modalities that allow healthcare providers and patients to connect using technology for various purposes during care diagnosis and treatment. There are currently four common forms of telehealth.
- Live Video
This type of telemedicine service is also known as “real-time.” The technology allows communication between a healthcare provider and a patient to happen in actual time.
Healthcare providers commonly use live video telemedicine to administer consultations, diagnosis, and treatment services. The technology used for live video includes video conferencing units, cameras, videoscopes, web cameras, or the built-in camera of a laptop or tablet.
Historically, live video is the most common application of telemedicine or telehealth. All private payers and Medicaid programs in each US state reimburse for live video under various circumstances.
According to the CCHP, video conferencing is an effective healthcare and consultation tool for a variety of applications, including:
- Emergency room or intensive care unit support
- Remote and collaborative consultations
- Health education for multiple locations
Store-and-forward services provide access to any collection of health data, such as X-rays, MRIs, photos, patient data, and even video-exam clips. This telemedicine service also involves communication tools such as secure email.
Store-and-forward communications primarily happen among healthcare professionals to help them during evaluations, diagnoses, and medical consultations when a live video or face-to-face contact is unavailable or unnecessary.
Moreover, store-and-forward telemedicine also provides significant benefits for patients, including:
- Allows timely specialty care without having a patient travel to see their primary care provider as they can review patient cases, regardless of their respective locations
- Reduces waiting times in medical institutions or clinics, especially in areas with shortages of medical specialists
- Can overcome language and cultural barriers
CCHP states that store-and-forward technologies are commonly used in radiology, pathology, dermatology, and ophthalmology. Providers also use this telemedicine technology in electronic consultations or eConsults. This web-based system allows a primary care provider (PCP) and a specialist to share health data and discuss patient care in a secured channel.
Unlike live video, store-and-forward services are not always reimbursable by private payers and Medicaid programs from other states.
- Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)
Remote patient monitoring telemedicine is a crucial technology, especially for medical cases wherein patients need continuous monitoring of their vital signs such as blood pressure, blood sugar, blood oxygen levels, etc.
This telemedicine service allows medical data collection from an individual in any location. It transmits this data via electronic communication technologies to providers from different areas for care and related support. It also enables providers to track a patient’s health data once released to home or care facilities.
Other benefits of RPM to patients are:
- Help keep an individual stay healthy and improve quality of life
- Allow older or disabled individuals to stay home and avoid moving from nursing facilities
- Reduce the number of hospitalizations, readmissions, and lengths of stay in hospitals
Like store-and-forward, RPM services are often not qualified for telemedicine reimbursements. However, you should note that some Medicaid programs reimburse for remote physiologic monitoring, which is similar to RPM but distinct due to specific reimbursement service codes.
- Mobile Health (mHealth)
MHealth is a relatively new and rapidly evolving technology supported by communication devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. This telemedicine technology uses applications ranging from targeted messages to promote health to wide-scale alerts during disease outbreaks.
Given its recent development, practices governing the use of mHealth technology in healthcare continue to expand. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) all have some jurisdiction oversight in this area.
This factsheet from the National Consortium of Telehealth Resource Centers provides basic information on mHealth and FDA regulations.
The process of telehealth consultations is quick and easy, but you should watch out for HIPAA violations.
Digital technology is the core of telemedicine. Leveraging modern technologies to connect healthcare professionals and patients is faster, easier, and more affordable.
Virtual visits work primarily like any other patient consultation. The only difference is that the participants are not in the same physical location. Telehealth allows appointments to happen in a virtual setting. Patients don’t have to worry about travel, spend hours in waiting rooms, or take days off work to receive the required medical care.
Common telemedicine steps:
- The patient schedules an online appointment
- The medical staff sends the link to the patient to join the video call with a healthcare professional
- The patient describes their symptoms
- A licensed healthcare professional examines and diagnoses them
- The healthcare provider determines treatment based on their diagnosis. For serious cases, they would require the patient to visit a hospital for further diagnosis and treatment
- Based on the virtual session, the provider may call in a prescription or refill to a pharmacy and follow up as needed
- The patient receives a summary of their virtual visit and schedules a follow-up appointment, if necessary
One of the most significant advantages of telehealth is it allows providers and patients to continue their communication even after the consultation with a secure, 2-way texting solution.
Healthcare providers can accept and see more patients because each visit happens remotely. However, they can’t just use any technology to communicate with their patients and facilitate remote care. They must set up telemedicine through secure platforms that comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules regarding patient communication.
Many telemedicine providers are unaware of the potential violations of a patient’s privacy created by simply sharing a piece of information in an unsecured communication platform. HIPAA violations range from using unsecured communication channels to unintentional staff mistakes leading to healthcare data breaches. Violating HIPAA can cost a covered entity between $100 and $50,000 per violation or face civil or criminal penalties.
Remote care may sound simple, but you must meet several requirements.
Although telemedicine is straightforward, there are a few things providers need to figure out before they can start offering remote healthcare services to their patients.
Before you can start practicing telemedicine, you must:
- Find the right telemedicine solution for your practice
- Ensure your practice is HIPAA compliant and sign a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with the solution provider
- Set up the solution and ensure your doctors and medical staff have sufficient training to use it properly
- Understand all applicable laws, regulations, and reimbursement policies
Finding the Right Telemedicine Solution
First and foremost, you need to review what types of services you intend to offer via telemedicine. Then, you should choose a telemedicine solution that offers all the necessary capabilities and features that will enable you to treat patients online efficiently.
For solo practitioners and smaller clinics, a simple two-way video platform may do. They just need to make sure it’s HIPAA compliant.
Providers looking for an all-encompassing solution to set up a virtual clinic must consider their existing workflows and find a telemedicine platform that supports them.
Curogram is a comprehensive telemedicine solution designed specifically for healthcare professionals. It mimics your in-person workflows and provides advanced waiting room management tools, allowing your doctors and medical staff to transition into an online environment easily.
Curogram also includes an easy-to-use two-way messaging platform, allowing you to stay connected with your patients. When a patient schedules an online appointment, they will receive an SMS with a link to join your virtual clinic at the scheduled time. Patients can always respond with a simple text if they want to reschedule or ask questions.
Moreover, Curogram sends out automated appointment reminders to ensure your patients don’t miss the scheduled appointment.
Another critical feature of Curogram is EHR integration. It integrates with virtually any EHR, allowing you to connect Curogram with your existing system easily. This integration eliminates the need for manual or double entry since all the relevant medical data automatically updates your EHR after each visit.
HIPAA Compliance and the Business Associate Agreements
Before you share any medical information via a telemedicine solution, you have to make sure that the solution you opted for allows you to do so in a HIPAA-compliant manner.
The main concern of HIPAA regarding telemedicine is the storing and transmission of health data and who has access to it. The data must be encrypted and protected, both in transit and at rest. You must create policies that clearly define who can access the patients’ medical information and what circumstances.
Most commercial or free videoconferencing platforms are out of the question. They don’t have the required technological, administrative, and security safeguards to meet the HIPAA Rules and Regulations.
Curogram is fully HIPAA compliant and comes with built-in safeguards that enable you to safely practice telemedicine and guarantee the security of electronic protected health information (ePHI).
Another thing to consider before you start practicing telemedicine is a Business Associate Agreement (BAA). This agreement details how the third-party provider — the company supplying the telemedicine solution — stores ePHI. If a provider refuses to sign a BAA with you, that means they cannot guarantee the safety and security of your patients’ data.
With Curogram, signing a BAA is a formality. Curogram employs the latest encryption technology, has built-in safeguards, and enables two-way authentication, ensuring your patients' medical data is 100% secure.
Schedule a free demo today to learn more about how Curogram can help you make the most of telemedicine.