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Telemedicine: A Game Changer for Senior Healthcare

Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MHA@GW and MPH@GW, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. For several years, she served as a community development specialist in Zambia coordinating youth empowerment programs and reproductive health education. She is currently an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.
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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