The Role of Telemedicine in Healthcare and its Transformative Impact on the Industry

By Vineela Yannamreddy, CIO, United Medical Center

Telemedicine emerged as a tool to provide basic primary care services to rural/remote locations by conducting virtual visits via videoconference or a phone call. Before the onset of a global pandemic, the utilization of remote patient monitoring (RPM) was minimal. In recent times, telemedicine has become the limelight in healthcare practices. Its impact on the industry has been substantial and continues to grow. Barring all geographical restrictions, patients are now able to receive the care they need from their comfort zone, reducing the risk and overcrowding.

Telehealth enhanced chronic disease management (CDM) through frequent monitoring and communication between healthcare providers and patients with chronic conditions. This proactive approach leads to better disease management and improved patient outcomes. Telemedicine is immensely valuable for specialized services like psychiatry, dermatology, etc. With telemedicine, patients often experience shorter wait times for appointments as they can access care more quickly than traditional in-person visits. This is particularly important for non-emergency care. Virtual appointments are less likely to be missed by patients, leading to improved continuity of care and better patient adherence to treatment plans.

Telemedicine platforms include patient portal and educational resources, enabling patients to access information about their conditions and treatment options, fostering better health literacy.

Investments in AI are expected to grow as the health industry recognizes the value of AI in enhancing patient care, addressing some of the challenges faced in healthcare delivery.

Wearable medical devices and sensors play a vital role in telemedicine, providing continuous, real-time monitoring of vital signs, health metrics and activity levels. This continuous data stream allows for more comprehensive insights into patient’s health. These devices can detect subtle changes in the parameters, allowing early detection of potential health issues. Some wearables remind patients of their medications or dosage instructions. This improves medication adherence, and is of help for individuals, particularly with complex medication regimes.

With the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), telemedicine revolutionized the way healthcare services are delivered, monitored and managed remotely. AI technologies are integrated into EMR to enhance accessibility, efficiency, accuracy and outcomes. AI can analyze data and trends for anomalies, allowing healthcare providers to intervene proactively in chronic disease management. Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms can transcribe and analyze during telehealth visits, reducing the provider documentation time and yielding appointment slots for more visits. AI is deemed to be promising in provider satisfaction by reducing administrative workload. Better financial outcomes can be fostered from more accurate documentation and coding.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic heightened the adaption of telemedicine as an initial encounter for patient screening, throughout the country, many health systems struggled with enabling their legacy EMR systems to provide telemedicine features. Practices experienced challenges procuring technology and changing their workflows designed for in-person encounters.

Some healthcare programs that swiftly enabled their practices with telemedicine, grappled with clinical staff adoption. A diminutive percentage of physicians remain conservative of the telemedicine practice compared with in-person care. Preeminent reasons are identifying patients for in-person versus televisit, low reimbursement rates for virtual visits, technological barriers etc. Telemedicine limits physician’s ability to perform physical examinations, which are crucial for diagnosing certain conditions. Physicians may need to rely on patients’ descriptions and observations, potentially leading to incomplete assessments.

The limitations of adaption of telemedicine are not only with practices, but also with patients. The barriers may not be the same as they were a few years ago, but they are still persistent among the patient demographics, technology literacy and financial circumstances. Especially in underserved and rural areas, patients may not have access to smartphones, computers or internet connections to utilize telemedicine. Older adults may lack the digital literacy skills needed to schedule appointments and utilize video conferencing.  Patients with disabilities may encounter accessibility issues with telemedicine platforms, such as screen readers, captions, or other assistive technologies. In addition, the providers and patients experience privacy and security concerns. Ensuring the security and privacy of patient information during virtual consultations is a significant affair. Physicians must adhere to the regulations and utilize secure communication tools.

To address these adaptation issues, healthcare organizations should offer training and support to the clinical staff as well as patients. Implement user-friendly telemedicine platforms, and ensure clear policies and procedures are in place. One strategy is to leverage super users along with providers for an effortless experience of virtual care encounters. The provider should be supported by technology platform experts readily available to troubleshoot any issues that emerge during the encounter. Another way is to engage patients via technology bar (Tech-Bar) during in-person visit and empower them with the tools they need to utilize telehealth services for better disease management.

Over time, as AI in telemedicine becomes more integrated into healthcare systems, it brings about a wide range of benefits and transformations. And as physicians gain experience, many of these challenges can be overcome, leading to more widespread acceptance and effective use of telemedicine in medical practice. However, it also brings challenges related to data privacy, ethics, and ensuring AI technologies are adopted responsibly and equitably across diverse patient populations. Investments in AI are expected to grow as the health industry recognizes the value of AI in enhancing patient care, addressing some of the challenges faced in healthcare delivery. These investments encourage innovations, driving research and development, and creating solutions that potentially benefit patients and providers.

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