There’s an old Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Times have certainly been “interesting” for everyone working in healthcare. The expanding role of telehealth services is proving invaluable in addressing some of the multiple and seemingly never-ending challenges confronting urban and rural hospitals, healthcare professionals and patients.
Most Americans probably haven’t used their smartphones or laptops for an e-visit with their doctor. However, telehealth tools have almost certainly been used on their behalf multiple times. Healthcare providers are increasingly finding telehealth is cost-effective and beneficial for both patients and providers.
As the U.S. population continues to gray, older and sicker Americans put an ever-increasing demand on all health resources. A 2017 study projects a critical shortage of about 105,000 physicians in all specialties by 2030.
As future medical advances work to further prolong life, the pressure on healthcare systems, hospitals and flesh-and-blood providers can only increase. While all hospitals benefit from telehealth services, rural hospitals are particularly vulnerable since they typically face chronic funding and personnel shortages.
Telehealth uses telecommunication technologies to provide a host of health-related information and services. Some telehealth benefits are immediately obvious to patients, such as physician evisits and remote monitoring, while others function in the background in hospitals and elsewhere.
A few of telehealth’s many applications include:
St. Louis’s Mercy Virtual Care Center is a hospital with no beds, but many patients. Doctors and nurses are intensely focused on screens, monitoring very sick patients in distant hospital rooms and ICUs. They view graphs and zoom in on the patients, watching for signs of impending trouble.
Why is this service so crucial when the doctors and nurses at the patient’s bedside can also review the various monitors and directly examine the patient? The Mercy doctors and nurses have developed a high level of expertise at interpreting the information. Also, they aren’t suddenly called away to deal with medical emergencies elsewhere. While hospital staff are handling emergencies, distant monitoring continues for unattended patients.
Mercy’s doctors and nurses monitor the data 24/7 in a way that’s impossible for overburdened hospital personnel. In fact, the sheer quantity of medical monitoring in a hospital room can be difficult for harried bedside doctors and nurses to interpret. Important data can be overlooked.
What happens when a problem is discovered? The Mercy nurse or doctor calls to alert the patient’s healthcare provider. If the patient being monitored is in their home, the patient can be alerted to go to the ER or other necessary action taken.
Virtual monitoring is especially valuable when time is really of the essence. Every year in the U.S., for example, about 1.5 million chronically ill patients develop sepsis and 250,000 die. This bacterial infection is one of the leading causes of deaths in hospitals.
Sepsis is difficult to spot in the early stages and, untreated, worsens rapidly. A telehealth nurse remotely watching for symptoms of a new sepsis infection will alert the hospital so the patient can receive immediate and potentially life-saving treatment.
One of the biggest problems telehealth faces is gaining the trust of healthcare personnel, especially doctors. It may take months before they learn they can rely on 24/7 monitoring of their patients by people hundreds of miles away. Telehealth doesn’t replace the traditional role of doctors and nurses. It enhances their role, allowing them to provide even better care to their patients.
A small rural hospital, for example, might not be able to staff ICU doctors 24/7. A remote doctor would be able to monitor the patients at night when the ICU was staffed only by nurses, handling many of the tasks of the hospital’s doctor. If needed, the local doctor is called in. Telehealth is a resource helping healthcare professionals to use their valuable and limited time most effectively.
A telehealth nurse can’t give a shot or replace an empty IV bag. However, a telehealth nurse can alert the local nurse to the empty bag. A homebound patient can receive more frequent monitoring and doctor evisits, important for the best maintenance of chronic illnesses.
Insurance companies do not yet uniformly cover all telehealth services, but this can be expected to resolve itself over time. Telehealth often shortens and prevents very expensive ER visits and lengthy hospital stays. Fewer resources are needed to provide hiqh-quality care.
Telehealth offers a lot more than the ability to consult a doctor from a distant mountain cabin. Healthcare professionals have another tool for improved patient care. Hands-on care will always be necessary, but remotely located healthcare professionals will become increasingly valuable members of the team caring for the patient.