Telehealth: Technology meets health care

ROCHESTER, Minn. – How many times have you heard it said the internet has transformed modern life? Indeed, it’s probably changed how you stay in touch with family and friends, purchase goods and services, and even search for information about health problems.

A variety of telehealth tools are available to help you manage your health care and receive the services you need. Are you taking advantage of them?

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is the use of digital information and communication technologies, such as computers and mobile devices, to access health care services remotely and manage your health care. These may be technologies you use from home or that your doctor uses to improve or support health care services.

Consider, for example, the ways telehealth could help you if you have diabetes. You could do some or all of the following:

n Use a mobile phone or other device to upload food logs, medications, dosing and blood sugar levels for review by a nurse who responds electronically.

n Watch a video on carbohydrate counting and download an app for it to your phone.

n Use an app to estimate, based on your diet and exercise level, how much insulin you need.

n Use an online patient portal to see your test results, schedule appointments, request prescription refills or email your doctor.

Order testing supplies and medications online.

n Get a mobile retinal photoscreening at your doctor’s office rather than scheduling an appointment with a specialist.

n Get email, text or phone reminders when you need a flu shot, foot exam or other preventive care.

The goals of telehealth, also called e-health or m-health (mobile health), include the following:

n Make health care accessible to people who live in rural or isolated communities.

n Make services more readily available or convenient for people with limited mobility, time or transportation options.

n Provide access to medical specialists.

n Improve communication and coordination of care among members of a health care team and a patient.

n Provide support for self-management of health care.

n The following examples of telehealth services may be beneficial for your health care.

While these services are convenient, they have drawbacks:

Treatment may not be coordinated with your regular doctor.

Essential information from your medical history may not be considered.

The computer-driven decision-making model may not be optimal if you have a complex medical history.

The virtual visit lacks an in-person evaluation, which may hamper accurate diagnosis.

The service doesn’t easily allow for shared doctor-patient decision-making about treatments or making a plan B if an initial treatment doesn’t work.

Doctors talking to doctors

Doctors can also take advantage of technology to provide better care for their patients. One example is a virtual consultation that allows primary care doctors to get input from specialists when they have questions about your diagnosis or treatment.

The primary care doctor sends exam notes, history, test results, X-rays or other images to the specialist to review. The specialist may respond electronically, conduct a virtual appointment with you at your doctor’s office, or request a face-to-face meeting.

These virtual consultations may prevent unnecessary in-person referrals to a specialist, reduce wait times for specialist input and eliminate unnecessary travel.

Personal health records

An electronic personal health record system — often called a PHR system — is a collection of information about your health that you control and maintain. A PHR app is accessible to you anytime via a web-enabled device, such as your computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

In an emergency, a personal health record can quickly give emergency personnel vital information, such as current diagnoses, medications, drug allergies and your doctor’s contact information.

The limitations of telehealth

While telehealth has potential for better coordinated care, it also runs the risk of fragmenting health care. Fragmented care may lead to gaps in care, overuse of medical care, inappropriate use of medications, or unnecessary or overlapping care.

The potential benefits of telehealth services may be limited by other factors, such as the ability to pay for them. Insurance reimbursement for telehealth still varies by state and type of insurance. Also, some people who would benefit most from improved access to care may be limited because of regional internet availability or the cost of mobile devices.


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