Dr. Jeffery Sulitzer

COVID-19 shines a spotlight on telehealth: What it is and how it works

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve likely heard the word “telehealth” used a lot lately. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was becoming an important arm of medicine, but today, it’s making headlines. The social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic is increasing the use of telehealth and telemedicine services.

It makes sense, right? For patients, telehealth means a doctor “visit” can happen through a phone or video call, which is ideal during these times of social distancing, says Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer, chief clinical officer at SmileDirectClub. It can help everyone get the healthcare they need while isolating mildly ill patients from the public and putting less stress on the healthcare system.

But the benefits of telehealth go beyond the unique situation we find ourselves in today. The global market for telemedicine is expected to be worth $130 billion by 2025, according to Global Market Insights, with the United States alone accounting for half of it. While it’s too soon to tell, the pandemic might be accelerating that adoption rate — meaning it’s time to get to know telehealth and how it all works.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth, or telemedicine, is the delivery of healthcare and healthcare-related services through remote technologies, like your smartphone or computer. Technically, telehealth refers to everything that happens remotely in the healthcare industry, and telemedicine is a subset of telehealth that focuses on direct delivery of patient care.

In addition to primary care, clinicians and patients can use telemedicine in dentistry and orthodontics, physical and occupational therapy, to monitor chronic diseases, and to access mental health and counseling services. That’s what we do at SmileDirectClub: we’re a teledentistry company, which is how we know the ins and outs of this new form of healthcare delivery.

It’s important to note that telehealth or telemedicine does not entirely replace in-person care, but complements it, making healthcare more accessible and convenient for many.

Is telehealth as effective as in-person care?

Telehealth has been found to effectively serve patients whose symptoms are clear and well-defined. That allows in-patient visits to focus on the more challenging cases.

“Telemedicine gives consumers the opportunity to communicate with physicians and nurse practitioners and share information without having to go into the office,” Sulitzer says. “I can use FaceTime and photos and visualize just the same information as I can from actually seeing the patient in person.”

In the case of coronavirus, telemedicine has two advantages: A potentially infected patient can avoid transmitting the virus to other vulnerable people at the doctor’s office. Second, telemedicine takes the burden off of frontline hospitals who can then focus on severely ill patients. And those advantages apply to the normal flu season, too.

People like the telehealth model, too. A full 83% of patients interviewed for a 2018 Massachusetts General Hospital study  said the quality of their telehealth visits for follow-up care was just as good as or better than in-person ones. Patients also said that not having to take extended time off from work or travel to the doctor’s office were added benefits.

“Telehealth gives patients some level of comfort and reassurance that they’re not alone,” Sulitzer says, “It’s also a safe environment to get the care or at least understand the next steps in what they need to do to manage the symptoms of the virus.”

Telehealth’s other advantages

Telehealth has its roots in providing care in underserved rural areas or remote communities that might lack access to specialty care providers.

SmileDirectClub’s teledentistry program has shown how it can work — at least 84% of U.S. counties report increased access to teleorthodontics thanks to our presence. A 2018 review found that teledentistry could be comparable to face-to-face for oral screening, especially in rural areas and those with limited access to care.

Telehealth is also a less expensive way to monitor chronic diseases in patients or to deliver follow-up care after routine surgeries. Medical professionals can check in with patients using telehealth instead of extending hospital stays or insisting on an in-person visit that can require taking time off work and costly travel.

How does telehealth work with insurance?

Laws in 26 states (and counting) require that private insurance companies reimburse care providers for a telemedicine appointment just as they would for an in-house one.

While Medicare has traditionally dictated that such appointments would only be valid if the patient were in a designated “Health Professional Shortage Area” (HPSA) or non-metropolitan statistical area (MSA), these requirements have been waived in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I always advise confirming insurance coverage for any healthcare appointment, telehealth or not,” Sulitzer says. More and more, the answers to those questions are becoming “yes.”

The future of telehealth

We can all expect telehealth to become an important and common way for healthcare to happen. And the ways in which it can happen are multiplying as we speak. Smart wearables that monitor blood glucose levels or blood pressure can connect to remote healthcare networks through Wi-Fi to inform providers of any dangerous spikes.

Such automation and telecommunication portals make telehealth delivery more accessible, more efficient and more patient-friendly. By reducing the spread of viruses like the coronavirus, telehealth can also deliver a positive impact on public health — now and in the future.

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