Telemedicine: A Game Changer for Senior Healthcare


While healthcare for retirees once meant repeated trips to the doctor’s office, many are now able to receive high-quality medical services without leaving the comfort of home. And it’s all because of telemedicine.

This high-tech patient care model is quickly gaining traction as a means for lowering costs while improving healthcare quality—particularly among aging populations.
 

The Benefits of Telemedicine

The objective of telemedicine is to create a distance healthcare experience that mirrors the quality and comprehensiveness of a traditional office visit. Beyond offering convenience for both patients and caregivers, telemedicine has a number of compelling advantages.

Less waiting and faster response
For retirees with health issues—and their caregivers, who are often pressed for time—long waits in physician offices can be excruciating. Telemedicine eliminates waiting room tedium and enables more timely response from health care professionals through email, text message, and other electronic channels.

Lower costs
Many doctors actually charge less for a telehealth consultation than they do for an in-person visit. What's more, telehealth can reduce costs associated with travel and provide easier access to medical care for those living in rural areas.

Providers win, too. For example, physicians are able to consult with more patients in less time. One study determined that telemedicine could collectively save US nursing homes $479 million annually by reducing transportation costs related to in-person physician office visits.

Reduced hospital readmissions
The University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville created a telehealth program that combines real-time data with remote patient monitoring (RPM) for those discharged with heart failure, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a recent heart attack, or a hip or knee replacement. When nurses are alerted to any problems via the monitoring system, they contact the patient by phone or, if needed, make an in-home visit.

Only a year after instituting the program, the facility saw a reduction in its 30-day readmission to about 10%, in contrast with the national average of 17.5%.

Decreased hospitalization rates
In North Carolina, telemedicine is helping aging adults remain in their homes longer through RPM. Patients with diagnoses such as heart failure, COPD, and diabetes were monitored by telemedicine technologies at home in between skilled nursing visits. Both response and intervention times improved dramatically. According to another study, RPM has the potential to prevent between 460,000 and 627,000 heart failure-related hospital readmissions every year.

Prolonged autonomy
Evidence shows that telehealth supports the increased emphasis on aging in place. A Pennsylvania nonprofit that runs senior living communities reduced the percentage of patients moving into nursing homes from 20% to 12%. This was achieved by having frail patients wear monitoring devices that alert nurses immediately to a fall via text message, which allows for more rapid intervention.

Improved quality of life
One analysis revealed that, compared to conventional home care, home telehealth services improved access to care, patients’ medical conditions, and quality of life. The results of another study showed that a 2-month telemedicine program led to lower scores for depression and anxiety in cardiac patients. Patients who participated in the program also had 38% fewer hospital admissions and 31% fewer readmissions.
 

The Challenges of Telemedicine

Despite its many perks, telemedicine is not without disadvantages. Like any technology platform, telehealth communication systems may be disrupted due to electronic glitches, bad weather, slow Internet connections, and other factors. And while confidentiality rules apply to telemedicine just as they do in face-to-face interactions, electronically transmitted information is susceptible to hackers. Patients should understand their legal rights as far as privacy and be sure they know how to use the technology properly. 

Additionally, although the situation is slowly improving, not all insurers reimburse for telemedicine-based services. Those that do, like Medicare, may provide limited coverage.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of telehealth is the most obvious: the inability for a provider to perform a physical exam. Not being able to touch or feel the patient may cause some signs of illness to escape notice. Diagnosing certain conditions may simply not be possible with telemedicine, and may ultimately necessitate an in-person visit.
 
A Promising Future, Nonetheless
All concerns aside, telemedicine holds tremendous promise for our aging population. And providers are catching on: As of 2013, 52% of hospitals utilized telehealth services, and another 10% were actively beginning to implement them. In 2015, CMS extended Medicare coverage to include 7 new telehealth services for beneficiaries in certain regions, giving providers even more incentive to embrace this exciting revolution in healthcare delivery.
 
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