What is telehealth? The applications of digital medical care

  • Telehealth is a broad category that encompasses a variety of medical treatments and monitoring systems that take place digitally.
  • One of the most popular applications of telehealth is live video conferencing, which involves a patient and a doctor having a virtual appointment over video through a secure portal.
  • Another popular application of telehealth is remote patient monitoring, which gives physicians the opportunity to monitor patients outside the hospital through the use of wearable Bluetooth devices that can check blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and other vitals. 
  • This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.  
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Telehealth is any type of medical care that allows you to get treatment without showing up in-person to a doctor's office. This includes video conferencing with your doctor, sending images or test results online, and using apps or bluetooth enabled devices to track your treatment.

Currently, 76 percent of hospitals offer telehealth services, and many doctors are becoming more interested in using telehealth.

How telehealth works

The most common reason people use telehealth is to help patients who are unable to travel to a doctor's office in person, often because they live too far away says Ray Dorsey, MD, director of the Center for Health and Technology at the University of Rochester. Many people also like to use it because it is convenient and saves time and money.

Telehealth can also help control the spread of highly contagious diseases, Dorsey says, as it allows patients to stay home, avoiding contact with other people while still getting necessary treatment.

According to the Center for Connected Health Policy, the evolving list of healthcare fields that currently use telemedicine are:

  • Virtual Urgent Care
  • Dermatology
  • Dentistry
  • Mental Health Counseling and Psychiatry
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Home health
  • Chronic disease monitoring and management
  • Disaster management

Applications of telehealth

Live Video Conferencing: One important telehealth resource is live video conferencing. Video conferencing offers a way for doctors and patients to meet 'face to face' for medical appointments through a secure video portal.  This enables the doctor to pick up on physical cues and do some aspects of a physical exam, such as evaluating your respiratory rate and breathing status, or how sick you are. Telehealth is also valuable for mental health and therapy visits.  

"Live video conferencing is best for evaluating patients, especially when visual cues are important," says Dorsey. 

Although video conferencing can be a huge help for many patients, it doesn't work for all types of medical appointments. For example, routine physical checkups require in-person measures like listening to your lungs and heartbeat.

Store and Forward: Another vital telehealth service is store-and-forward, also known as asynchronous telemedicine, which involves using a secure platform to send medical information to healthcare providers.

Store-and-forward services can be used to send information between doctor and patient, or between doctors. For example, your primary care doctor might send an x-ray image to a specialist to decide on your diagnosis, known as an e-consultation.

Store-and-forward can also be helpful for doctors who work in rural areas and may need support from major medical centers to treat difficult or rare cases.

This also means that patients won't have to wait as long for their cases to be reviewed and can get quality care even if experts aren't available locally.

Mobile Health: Along with video and email-based medical care, mobile health apps now play an important role in treatment. Mobile health is a broad field that includes apps in which you can book medical appointments, track symptoms of a condition like diabetes, or pursue fitness goals.

Mobile apps are helpful for getting a day-to-day picture of your health and tracking your symptoms over time. A 2017 study found that nearly 40 percent of people use mobile health apps. But, it's important to note that mobile apps are not regulated by the FDA or other regulatory agency, so use the content at your own risk unless it is recommended by your healthcare provider.

There are also efforts by some government agencies to use text messaging to spread useful health information. For example, a service run through the Massachusetts state government called Text4Baby provides education on mother and baby health through text messages.

Remote Patient Monitoring: Another important function of telehealth is remote patient monitoring which gives physicians the chance to check on a patient's health after they have been released from the hospital.

Remote patient monitoring utilizes wearable devices like bluetooth enabled blood pressure cuffs, scales, and glucometers (to check blood sugars).  This can be helpful for elderly or disabled people who want to live at home but still need their health to be monitored, and allows you to get more real-time information about your condition.

This type of care can also be helpful during outbreaks of infectious diseases like a coronavirus, says Dorsey. At a time when hospital beds may be scarce, remote monitoring can be used to set up a mini-hospital at home, potentially reducing the time you are required to spend in the hospital. 

One thing to note–most wearable devices out there, especially the ones worn on the wrist, can be innacurate, with up to 25 percent error rates in some cases. So be sure if you are using a device for medical purposes that it is recommended by your doctor and is FDA approved. 

Although there are still limitations to the technology and methods of telehealth, it offers many benefits for people who have trouble accessing healthcare in person.

"We need to deliver care and education to all individuals," Dorsey says, "and minimize contact of potentially highly infectious individuals with traditional hospitals and clinics."

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