By Nicole Limpert
The Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) defines telehealth as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”
One of the most common forms of telehealth is a nurse hotline. Most U.S. health insurance companies offer a toll-free nurse advice hotline to their customers. Other types of telehealth services include virtual appointments, medical staff consults, remote health monitoring, and nonclinical services.
Removing Barriers to Healthcare
Telehealth not only makes access to healthcare easier for the public, it also has proven to be a necessity for both large organizations and niche markets.
Members of the United States military and their families are stationed all over the world. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Health System (MHS) provides healthcare to more than 9.4 million people through a network of fifty-six hospitals, 365 clinics, and other facilities worldwide. Telehealth programs connect military patients to providers across the world to deliver direct access to quality healthcare, tele-radiology, and tele-pharmacy services.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is heavily involved with providing telehealth services to rural communities and administers telecommunications telehealth grants through two major programs: the DLT Program and the Community Connect Program. Similarly, the United States’ Indian Health Service uses telehealth to assist with accessing health services for American Indian and Alaska Native populations living in outlying communities.
Other isolated niche markets use technology to improve healthcare. Alaska’s maritime industry uses a telehealth platform to enhance access to care for those who work in the dangerous waters off Alaska. Internet connections are unreliable, so they primarily use a phone-based system to instantly connect with doctors. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) uses telehealth to expand their internal healthcare program by consulting with external healthcare providers via collaborative practice agreements.
Telehealth and Medical Call Centers
Regardless of where people are located, telehealth is a critical tool that brings the best possible care to patients. Medical call centers play a significant role by providing the technology and medical expertise needed to bring remote healthcare to patients.
Technology enables medical call centers to effectively become an extension of a hospital or medical center’s operation. The communication software used by medical call centers can securely access a patient’s electronic medical record (EMR), update EMRs with notes, and record calls needed for insurance claims and workers’ compensation. Because everything is documented, detailed reports can be generated for reporting purposes.
Medical call center operators can coordinate care, make follow-up calls, schedule visits, contact on-call medical staff, and manage referrals. Some healthcare call centers staff licensed medical professionals who are qualified to make health assessments, give medical advice, and escalate critical concerns.
The services provided by medical call centers are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Medical operators can work different hours and be located anywhere in the world, in any time zone. For example, if a medical center on the East Coast of the United States is closed, operators on the West Coast are still available.
Telehealth Benefits Hospitals
In the 2017 American College of Healthcare Executives’ (ACHE) annual survey, hospital CEOs ranked their ten biggest challenges for the year. Telehealth services can address six of these ten concerns—specifically, financial challenges (first), personnel shortages (third), quality of care (fourth), patient satisfaction (fifth), access to care (seventh), and population health management (ninth).
Multiple small- and large-scale studies cite the use of telehealth as a cost-effective method to deliver quality care, improve outcomes, enhance the patient experience, and expand access to healthcare. The patient’s experience with their healthcare team plays a critical role in their satisfaction. Patients are asked to provide information about their care experience via the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey. Unacceptable survey results can result in hospitals losing some reimbursements. In 2017 alone, approximately 1.7 billion dollars in reimbursements were withheld from hospitals.
The cost savings are also passed along to patients. Call center data from Health Navigator cites that the top five reasons for calling a nurse hotline are fever, vomiting, stomach pain, cough, and head pain. Less than 10 percent of the cases were high-risk. On average, telehealth appointments for nonemergency reasons cost approximately forty-five dollars, as opposed to one hundred dollars for an in-person visit at a doctor’s office or 160 dollars at an urgent care clinic.
The Future of Telehealth
The population growth for the United States from 2008 to 2030, is estimated at 20 percent, totaling 363 million people. This spike in population will exacerbate an already strained shortage of healthcare professionals. Telehealth services may become more of a healthcare necessity rather than a convenience.
As technology advances, telehealth can become more complex by not only connecting patients with expertise in real time, but also by enabling computer-assisted medical procedures in remote locations by specialists thousands of miles away, thus creating global care teams for patients.
Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.