Understanding telemedicine, or when healthcare goes digital
The explosion in telemedicine use and necessity is the undeniable result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is probable that during quarantine, you have participated in several doctor’s appointments online. To a degree, telemedicine always had a role, but face-to-face sessions were the norm. However, its illuminating potential unraveled once health providers had to accept and consult patients remotely. Face-to-face appointments became scarce, and remote ones became the only probable way to get experts’ opinions. Thus, telemedicine has turned into a standard, but did the forced race cost more than patients assume? Let’s consider the benefits modern society reaps, how telemedicine affects privacy, and its downsides.
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine refers to the use of electronic data and telecommunications tech to provide healthcare services. Generally, both patients and health professionals supply positive feedback on remote medical care. However, the meaning of telemedicine can be different depending on the perspective taken. For instance:
- Some might treat it as an old-fashioned call through the telephone with your doctor or another physician.
- Others can deem it as the booming video interactions via video chatting software.
- The third group of people might see it as the interactions via video communications paired with specific devices. For instance, some physicians might take a look at the data from users’ smartwatches. Others could equip a remote stethoscope or ask their patients to use health devices they have at home.
Typically, all patients need is an internet-connected device, and they can present their symptoms on the virtual consultation table.
In many ways, experts label 2020 as the year of telemedicine. With many physicians asking the right questions, the coronavirus brought something none of us expected. Thus, with a healthcare revolution upon us, both specialists and patients realized just how much they could achieve online.
What telemedicine helps patients achieve
Without ever stepping into a clinic, patients can renew their subscriptions, get their test results, or simply consult about specific symptoms. In a study published in July 2020, the findings showed that many people are ready to take more control of their healthcare.
In a sense, telemedicine helps them achieve this goal by giving them more opportunities. Instead of commuting to a doctor’s appointment, they can now simply call to get the information they need. Thus, it also reflects that people have adapted to managing many of their aspects digitally. Healthcare should not be an exception.
Thus, patients can use telemedicine to perform the following activities:
- Physicians can provide medical care to a certain degree. For instance, they might be able to assess whether the patient needs a face-to-face appointment.
- Professionals can fully support mental health treatment remotely.
- Doctors can write or renew prescriptions.
- Physicians can also carry out certain types of therapy without having physical contact with the patient.
Is telemedicine the same as telehealth?
While telemedicine and telehealth are relevant in similar contexts, their meaning differs. Telehealth is a broader concept, which encompasses telemedicine. The latter typically revolves around remote clinical services. However, telehealth covers non-clinical services as well. For instance, telehealth can include remote training, administrative meetings, medical education, etc.
Nevertheless, in both cases, health and health-related services happen over a distance, either via the internet or phone.
Advantages of telemedicine
Currently, health providers have never been more ready to accommodate the patients’ demands for remote healthcare. Therefore, e-consultations, apps, appointment bookings, and other online services bring many benefits. Here are some of them classified according to two perspectives: patients and healthcare providers.
Benefits for patients
- Reduced costs. In-person visits might force patients to leave work early, hire babysitters, or cost a lot in commuting or gas. Telemedicine allows them to avoid all these downsides.
- Convenience. Signing up for and implementing e-consultations from the comfort of your home is a strong advantage.
- Increase access to healthcare. Telemedicine is potentially the most influential to people living in rural areas. Such patients might not have equal access to medical services. Thus, the technology behind remote consultations expands care in remote regions.
- Facilitates more communication between patients and doctors. People might be reluctant to visit hospitals for minor problems. According to a study, 40% of individuals would skip their appointments if they did not have access to virtual visits. Telemedicine might be the reason many contact specialists and ask for guidance.
- Less chance of contracting viruses. Telemedicine does not only prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also allows patients to avoid getting sick after encountering other ill patients.
For healthcare providers
- Lower overhead expenses. Providers might reduce their costs if they fully support and even recommend remote options. For instance, some might shorten their practice hours if their staff gets paid hourly. Additionally, physicians themselves can conduct appointments at home.
- More patients accepted. Thanks to telemedicine, doctors might squeeze in more patients than they do with in-person visits.
- Increased patient satisfaction. If a medical facility supports remote appointments, its patients can see it as a benefit.
- Reduces no-shows. Specialists can optimize their time by boosting their patient flow. With remote consultations, people might be more eager to show up for their appointments.
Problems with telemedicine
Despite offering significant benefits, telemedicine has innate problems. Many of them are the results of the unexpected rush to support remote visits. Here are the main dangers you need to consider:
- Non-compliance with HIPAA requirements. According to a CDC report, telehealth visits had increased by 50% once the pandemic struck. Thus, it is understandable that many health providers were not ready to support this influx of remote appointments. As a result, many telemedicine systems lacked security and privacy, as the rush to produce them took priority. However, Civil Rights had announced that it wouldn’t impose any penalties for HIPAA non-compliance during the pandemic. Hence, healthcare providers were able to use Zoom or Skype for conducting their remote visits.
- Data transfers online have many dangers. Since health providers use various video conferencing platforms, the security of data exchanged is questionable. Medical data of patients is one of the most sensitive pieces of information. Zoom or Skype is not secure by design when it comes to protecting confidential medical information. Thus, studies urge healthcare providers to use video conferencing tools, ensuring encryption and robust security overall.
- Whether wearables and other health-related apps are safe to use. Be it a mental health tracker or a fitness app, it is essential to know how it deals with your information. Telemedicine and physicians might rely on specific tools for getting more information on patients’ conditions. Before using such apps, people need to know if they won’t exploit data related to their mental or physical health.
- Telemedicine requires a stable internet connection. Not all people might be able to take advantage of remote healthcare. For instance, people in rural areas might still not get the care they need. Thus, telemedicine and telehealth might be as useful as the devices, or the internet connection patients have. If they do not have access to these components, they won’t experience any benefits.
How can you use telemedicine tech safely?
Telemedicine is an innovation that many people have long considered to be essential. With the technology capable of supporting these needs, it is a celebration of convenience and accessibility.
However, security and privacy are two factors that will need some improvement. On your end, you might follow these tips to reassure that your experience goes smoothly:
- Protect your accounts with strong passwords and 2FA. You need to secure your telemedicine account. Equip a unique password and, if possible, add two-factor authentication. This duet is very likely to safeguard your account from potential hacks.
- Use only updated programs and OS. Vulnerabilities and outdated software could be the reason hackers get a chance to compromise your data. Thus, always use secure devices for telemedicine services.
- End-to-end encryption as a priority. Apps or services that you use should offer end-to-end encryption (E2EE). It will increase the security of your data exchange and prevent others from snooping on it.
- Avoid free Wi-Fi networks. Some patients might use unsecured networks for connecting to their remote appointments. This decision is dangerous and might allow third parties to monitor your interaction.
- Enable a VPN. Every time you send or share sensitive data, connect to a reliable VPN. It encrypts the entire internet traffic and minimizes the risks of interception and data theft. It also protects you on free Wi-Fi networks by tunneling all the data safely and privately.
Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.