The use of video conferencing technology is not only improving many patients’ quality of life, but opening entirely new markets to the medical industry. How does Telehealth work, who’s benefitting from it, and what do medical professionals need to implement it?

Medicine has made incredible and rapid advances in the past few decades, but until now, one basic necessity has remained the same: patients, no matter how sick they are, still have to schedule an appointment, get in their cars, and make a trip to the doctor’s office.

But Telehealth is transforming the healthcare delivery model to give patients access to round-the-clock care from the comfort of their homes. Instead of forcing patients to leave their sick beds to get a diagnosis, this rapidly advancing field allows them to pull out their phone or tablet and video chat with a healthcare professional.

While Telehealth isn’t meant to replace face-to-face interaction with doctors, it seriously strengthens doctor-patient relationships — this is no small step for those with chronic illnesses, or people whose rural location makes it difficult to access medical care. While there remain some difficulties associated with fully implementing Telehealth into legacy health systems, medical professionals should start considering if and when they’ll introduce it to their practice.

Background

For the past few years, Telehealth — also known as Telemedicine — has been at the forefront of digital health. The practice is generally defined as the use of digital channels, or videoconferencing, to solve medical problems in real time, and its implications go well beyond more convenient healthcare. Not only does Telehealth enable 24/7 patient engagement, but it expands the reach of today’s most advanced care to patients that were previously inaccessible.

Consumer segments that find access to care difficult because of mobility, location, or cost constraints could find their quality of life vastly improved by this technology. While a doctor can’t save a patient from a heart attack or perform surgery through an iPad, she can offer potentially life-saving diagnoses to patients who cannot easily access care. Through the treatment of such non-emergency conditions as sinus problems, allergies, and cold and flu symptoms, Telehealth could also improve population health outcomes by screening for more serious conditions early on.

On the other side of the coin, remote access to doctors could help prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room. For the chronically ill, this is especially important — people who regularly experience concerning symptoms need frequent contact with medical professionals and specialists. Remote care enables this constant interaction without forcing patients to risk worsening their condition.

Current Landscape

Mobile apps are currently the telehealth channel of choice for many consumers, as they’re particularly convenient, accessible, and have the ability to provide a broad range of services.

For instance, a popular app called Vytaliz uses your symptoms to not only connect you with a physician via videoconference, but arrange for a nurse to come right to your door within hours. Other apps, like DocChat, offer patients guaranteed access to emergency-experienced doctors within 15 minutes via videoconference at any hour of the day, along with the option to have prescriptions sent directly to local pharmacies. Still others apply the Uber model for care delivery. Apps like Pager and Heal, for instance, enable users to make real-time requests for house calls, expediting access to care.

These developments put plenty of pressure on today’s top medical companies to start developing apps of their own. But for hospitals and private practices, the challenge is in integrating Telehealth into already existing infrastructure. For one thing, some worry that videoconferencing could complicate current electronic health record (EHR) systems. And while technology like webcams are readily available and affordable, they need to be both secure and HIPAA-compliant to be authorized for regular use.

Why It Matters

Telehealth has major applications to both mainstream medical consumers and to previously inaccessible segments of the population — that alone should be enough to tell you that it isn’t going anywhere but up. The American Telemedicine Association estimates that nearly one million people will utilize Telehealth videoconferencing services in 2015 alone.

While Telehealth will never truly replace the value of face-to-face interaction and care delivery, the proliferation and rising adoption of these technologies are providing valuable alternatives for patient access to physician care. This technology is empowering consumers with on-demand care, anytime, anywhere, and it will change medicine as we know it — whether doctors are ready for it or not.