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Telehealth is the use of telecommunications devices to provide health-related services, education and administration remotely rather than in person. Telemedicine, the utilization of technology to provide clinical care, is just one service under the telehealth umbrella. Other aspects of telehealth include information sharing, consumer and professional education, homeland security and research, among others. Specialized areas include tele-nursing, tele-psychiatry, tele-radiology, tele-dermatology, tele-ophthalmology and tele-dentistry.
These services can be provided in real time through videoconferencing, phone communications or Internet streaming audio and video. Videoconferencing allows doctors and patients to meet via a video screen, often preventing the patient from incurring additional travel costs and shortening the waiting time. Specialized examination tools can be used to allow doctors to monitor a patient's heartbeat, examine parts of the body and perform other basic examinations that normally would be done in person. Phone communication connects a patient with a nurse or other professional who can give advice before the patient decides to visit a clinic or hospital. Videoconferencing and streaming media both allow for more efficient training, continuing education, research and public health campaigns.
Other forms of telehealth services do not involve direct patient-doctor interaction. Store-and-forward telehealth allows healthcare professionals to quickly, easily and securely share medical information from tests and charts. This allows healthcare workers to share images, such as X-rays, without physically exchanging a hard copy.
Specialized electronic store-and-forward devices can collect a patient's vitals and other medical information over time and then send the information to a doctor for review. Live remote monitoring enables professionals to view biometric data in real time. Email communication, virtual reality, and robotics are also considered telehealth services.
Telehealth has many benefits and uses for both patients and healthcare providers. It allows greater access to healthcare services for those in under-served locations, such as rural areas; extreme locations, such as Antarctica or outer space; schools; prisons; and military installments. It decreases healthcare costs for both providers and patients, and it allows for faster diagnosis and therefore a faster return to health. It also provides more efficient information-sharing among healthcare professionals and between providers and patients.
Although these services might be more timely and cost-effective than traditional face-to-face healthcare services, many private insurance providers will not cover telehealth services. Some government insurance plans reimburse for certain eligible telehealth services. Also, some licensure laws prevent doctors from practicing healthcare remotely for patients in other jurisdictions, so healthcare providers who wish to participate in telemedicine should become familiar with the laws where they plan to practice.