Telehealth IT – The Future of the Healthcare System or a Dead-end for Information Technology?

The digital transformation process was ultimately accelerated due to the Pandemic of COVID-19. IT solutions that might have been considered novelties and even indulgence only two or three years ago became ultimate survival features in 2020.

The concept of telehealth is not new to the IT world. It was inspired by the idea of taking the burden off healthcare institutions and making them more accessible for those who live in rural, isolated communities or patients with limited mobility. However, in 2020 Telehealth managed to provide necessary tools that helped get the situation under control in various areas and limit the spread of COVID-19.

This article shall provide an overview of Telehealth IT’s principles, its impact on the modern healthcare system, and perspectives for the observable future.

What is Telehealth?

Since the overall concept is relatively new, there is no strict definition for telehealth today. Terminology and protocols may vary between federal agencies and healthcare institutions.

However, the overall idea implies that telehealth uses telecommunication and other electronic solutions to collect, store, and share all kinds of health information. It provides long-distance communication between a patient and a doctor and supports health administration, management, and professional education. This includes both hardware and software. Telehealth technology offers the following solutions:

  • Removes geographic barriers for healthcare.
  • It makes local healthcare more efficient and equally accessible for all groups of patients.
  • Takes the burden off the healthcare system during seasonal outbreaks and pandemics.
  • Makes the administration and management between various healthcare institutions and agencies more efficient.
  • Provides efficient and relevant professional education, training, and specialists’ licensing, solving the permanent shortage of qualified healthcare providers in certain areas.

The Structure of Telehealth Information Technology

Telehealth is a strategic opportunity for the healthcare system to revolutionize the way patients and healthcare personnel provide and receive information and medical services. While the telehealth concept includes all kinds of communication within the healthcare system or connection between a patient and healthcare provider, it may be divided into three main types:

  • Remote Patient Monitoring – This is a way to monitor a patient’s condition at a distance without the need for physical contact. These protocols mostly apply to patients with chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes when they are aware of their condition and can verify any state change. Using telecommunication tools, remote monitoring reduces the monitoring cost for patients that require constant observance. They also reduce the need for physical travel and presence at the healthcare institutions, making quarantine restrictions more applicable and efficient for such patients’ routine healthcare.
  • Information store and transfer – The first Telehealth IT application before the concept itself had been shaped. Physicians may interchange data, test results, and other relevant information about patients to get colleagues and specialists’ opinions due to this feature. However, this is one of the most controversial Telehealth concept features as it ties closely with medical secrecy and its ethical aspects. Governance of Telemedicine becomes an extra sensitive feature here as information leakage or lack of communication may lead to severe legal and ethical complications.
  • Live Communication –Telehealth is sometimes called M-Health (Mobile Health). Using various mobile communication devices and gadgets, patients may have real-time communication with their healthcare specialists. This method is also widely used among physicians when seeking an urgent consultation or second opinion from a colleague. This is a significant efficiency feature for the overall healthcare system. In this case, incredibly complicated patients do not have to be transported or wait for a relevant physician’s visit.

These categories determine the priorities and main points of attention and concern for the IT policy in telehealth. They also indicate the importance of governance, ensuring seamless collaboration between healthcare providers and various communication features to make telehealth accessible and fully efficient.

Governance and the Legal Aspect of Telehealth IT

Telehealth online consultations or store-and-forward process must follow the same legal standards and requirements as the traditional face-to-face communication between a patient and a physician or any communication or training protocol within the healthcare system itself. It mostly relates to following privacy protocols and medical secrecy standards. Not only those that apply in the area where a patient lives or a physician operates but also international ones.

Telehealth’s main issues today relate to the threat of information leakage or incorrect storage or billing, which may cause complications with private billing and insurance information.

Telehealth governance aims to align healthcare institutions’ financial and strategic effectiveness, making the operation more transparent and manageable, while the information interchange and operation become automatized and secured.

Telehealth governance has three main features:

  • Management
  • Definition of transparent methodology within the Telehealth processes
  • Return of investment into Telehealth solutions.

While Telehealth solutions are independent both for short-term and long-term goals and values, the lack of governance, unclear communication within the system, and vague planning lead to the program’s overall inefficiency.

Telehealth Mapping and Appliance in Specific Areas

The key to the Telehealth concept’s success in certain areas and regions lies in seamless communication and collaboration of the local healthcare personnel with the technological organization and their accessibility and approachability for the patients. Both medical and administrative staff is involved in the process as their collaboration determines whether:

  • Patients will be aware of the opportunity to get Telehealth services.
  • Administrative staff can build a scheduling pattern that will not interfere with the offline practice and provide an equal workload for the remote specialists.
  • The system will be able to collect feedback from patients and respond accordingly.
  • The follow-up care will be provided and adjusted for every patient after the online consultation.
  • The staff will efficiently collect, analyze the data received from self-monitoring patients, and store it safely.

Those features may be provided with the creation of workflow that will systematize and clarify the Telehealth principles and benefits for the community or healthcare institution.

Telehealth Limitations – The Other Side of the Coin

Ironically, the very features that make telehealth such a promising concept for the overall future healthcare system may become its main downsides and imply certain limitations. Those limitations may question the overall further development of telehealth. Right now, it implies both communications between a patient and healthcare specialist and the in-system collaboration between professionals, their education, and licensing.

However, telehealth inevitably leads to fragmenting healthcare. The lack of communication, practical knowledge and observation are the usual reasons for:

  • Gaps in care – because the Telehealth concept foresees that a patient may monitor and evaluate his condition by following a personal protocol, gaps in care become almost inevitable for a significant percentage of patients.
  • Overuse of medical care – addressing a professional effortlessly, patients tend to abuse the Telehealth features. As a result, instead of taking the burden off the healthcare system, telehealth may lead to a contrary workload of the medical staff.
  • Inappropriate use of medications – the prescription protocols may be altered due to the lack of technological solutions to observe and control prescription and use of certain drugs.

All those limitations and possible complications appear due to inefficient governance and legal regulation of telehealth and the lack of IT solutions that will provide adequate administration, observation, and control over capabilities and spread and application of Telehealth technologies.

Potential and Future of Telehealth Information Technology

Telehealth IT’s main potential has already proven itself while applied in rural areas and against the background of the quarantine restrictions caused by COVID-19. Telehealth allows various health institutions to provide the full value of their services, without the traditional physical limitation of long-distance, lack of transportation, or restricted mobility of specific patients.

Despite various challenges from the technical point of view and traditional reluctance towards new technologies among individual patients and even healthcare professionals, telehealth can grow and even revolutionize the healthcare system in general.

While telehealth has appeared to be one of the most efficient methods to diagnose and prevent the spread of COVID-19, it has also become a significant information feature that helped raise awareness about the disease, its symptoms, and precautious methods. The future of telehealth in the healthcare system will be determined by policy and governance’s ability to provide legal and security and insurance protocols. Simultaneously, relying on IT solutions, telehealth entirely depends on the spread and quality of the Internet, user-friendly telecommunication solutions with an intuitive interface and accessible software, and raising awareness among citizens and healthcare practitioners about the benefits of Telehealth solutions.

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