How Does Telehealth Work to Ease the Strain on Health Care?

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A health care provider meets with a patient via videoconference using a laptop.

With a shortage of health care workers, services may lack resources or be misallocated. People with urgent medical needs often can’t get in to see the doctor as quickly as they should, and people with milder needs may take up valuable office time from those who need in-person appointments. In addition, many rural areas lack appropriate health care to serve all of their populations, and doctors in these underserved areas are stretched thin.

Telehealth is providing a solution for both of these concerns. A growing number of providers are turning to telehealth solutions to meet their patients’ needs, helping to ease the strain on the health care industry while offering patients quicker access to care. Here’s a closer look at how telehealth works and its status in the U.S.

What Is Telehealth ?

Telehealth is the use of technology to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education and public health and health administration, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Through apps, phone calls and video appointments, patients can connect with practitioners to get quick access to health care without an in-office appointment. Telehealth services can diagnose simple problems, allow access to prescriptions and even provide pay-as-you-go access to health care.

Technically, telehealth and telemedicine aren’t synonymous. Telemedicine is a subset of telehealth that deals specifically with remote clinical services, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). For example, a patient videoconferencing with a primary care physician or virtually requesting refills from the pharmacy is telemedicine. Using apps and wearable technology to track blood sugar or blood pressure for clinical purposes is telemedicine, too. Health care providers taking an ongoing education course online is an example of (nonclinical) telehealth.

The distinctions between what telehealth is and what telemedicine is are important for insurance purposes, as more insurance providers and Medicaid are expanding to cover telemedicine — including phone appointments, which may be more accessible for people living in rural areas without reliable broadband internet connections.

History of Telehealth

Telehealth has made significant progress in becoming part of the health care ecosystem. The factors driving growth in the history of telehealth include the following:

  • Consumer demand for telehealth options
  • Increased government support for telehealth
  • Improvement in data management

1. Consumer Demand for Telehealth

Today’s health care system is stretched to the limit. Patients are demanding a higher level of attention in a field with a shrinking number of available doctors. The end result is patients waiting longer and longer to see health care professionals and these professionals working under significant stress as they try to serve their patients well.

In 2021, 64% of U.S. homes with broadband used telehealth services, and 34% used only telehealth to see their provider, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

How telehealth works, normally conducted via broadband internet or telephone, can connect people living in rural areas to specialists from the comfort of their homes — saving them time and money and sparing them from unnecessary disruption and discomfort.

2. Increased Government Support

Government support for telehealth has also been a factor. In 2018 and 2019,  the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded its reimbursement amounts for remote care services. This coverage included additional help to teach patients how to use these services, so more consumers could become active participants in telehealth. Because CMS is the largest health care payer in the country, this represented a sizable chunk of the health care market.

When the federal government declared a public health emergency in early 2020 due to COVID-19, Congress and CMS expanded traditional Medicare coverage of telehealth services. Before this, telehealth services were generally only available to beneficiaries at a “distant site” (a health care setting, such as a doctor’s office or clinic), not in patients’ homes. Patients from urban areas were ineligible for Medicare reimbursement of telehealth services before the pandemic.

In another important change, policymakers voted to expand Medicare through the pandemic to include a greater range of telehealth services. Before the pandemic, traditional Medicare only covered around 100 services, including preventive health screenings, psychotherapy and office visits. Now, the list of allowable telehealth services includes emergency department visits; occupational and physical therapy; and some forms of audio-only telephone services, which greatly help patients without access to a reliable internet connection.

In these ways, government support for telehealth and telemedicine has shaped and will continue to shape, the availability and affordability of these services.

3. Improvement in Data Management

Improvement in data management also helped fuel changes in how telehealth works. Large amounts of data are now available to practitioners, and remote patient monitoring platforms are now becoming reality for people with chronic diseases. Now that the cloud is available to help practitioners manage data, patients are able to use telehealth services for things such as routine vital checks that otherwise required a trip to the doctor.

Advancements in encryption are also making health care data storage safer and more reliable, enabling patients and health care teams to conduct telehealth appointments remotely while preserving confidentiality.

Pros and Cons of Telehealth

Telehealth has the potential to make health care more accessible, connecting patients to specialists and bringing health care to areas previously underserved. However, health care must work within telehealth’s limitations and understand why some patients are hesitant to use telehealth services. Consider some pros and cons of telehealth.

Pro: Technology Making Telehealth More Accessible

A large part of how telehealth works is technology. Technological advancements make telehealth and telemedicine viable options for many patients across the U.S. The many technologies making telehealth accessible today include the following:

  • On-Site Kiosks — On-site kiosks are placed in clinics, community centers or job sites. They’re connected to a physician and offer monitoring of vitals along with a computer interface. This makes it convenient to track data and connect with a doctor when needed.
  • Mobile Apps — Using phone-based video, mobile apps make virtual face-to-face appointments with doctors a reality. These apps can also track health data, like vitals and weight, so doctors can keep tabs on the overall health of their patients.
  • Online Videoconferencing — When all that’s needed is for the doctor to see an injury or evaluate a rash, online video conferencing makes it easy.
  • Electronic Health Records with Patient Portals — Patient portals as part of electronic health record (EHR) programs provide patients with easier access to their medical data. The portals also allow doctors in telehealth programs to connect with specialists in other parts of the state or country to get help evaluating patient data.

Pro: Connecting Patients to Specialists

Telehealth can help connect patients with specialized services they may struggle to otherwise access. For patients with diabetes, for example, telehealth frees them from many types of appointments. They can use an app connected to their doctor’s office to track food, medications, insulin use and blood sugar levels. Online patient portals give patients access to test results and make it easier to refill prescriptions or securely email doctors. Retinal screening can even be done remotely from the main doctor’s office, rather than requiring a costly appointment with an eye specialist. All of this greatly reduces the strain on patients with diabetes while allowing the medical team to better monitor care and overall health.

Pro: Expanding Care to Rural Communities

Telehealth can be used to address provider shortages in specific geographical locations. Rural areas, for instance, tend to lack specialty health care services. Commuting to a city to seek treatment can be costly and burdensome (potentially hours of driving, gas and parking costs and the cost of staying overnight near a health care center). For patients who can’t drive, seeking health care this way is unfeasible; hence, many patients from rural areas go without proper care.

Rural communities are facing shortages of medical specialists, and many patients don’t have the funds or transportation options to travel from their home communities to seek care. In these settings, telehealth services can connect providers with the specialists their patients may need. Rather than sending a patient to an out-of-town specialist, a doctor can set up a videoconferencing session with the specialist to get care locally. In communities that have no doctors at all, telehealth programs can allow patients to get help for mild problems, like viruses and colds, without the need to travel to the doctor’s office.

Cons: Potential Pitfalls for Telehealth

Though telehealth made tremendous strides in recent years, some barriers in the medical industry still prevent it from becoming mainstream. These include the following:

  • Lack of privacy. As practitioners move online or into hybrid in-person and online services, they may need to update their communication strategies to support patients who lack privacy when teleconferencing from their homes. Patients at home may be more distracted or less able to find a quiet, private space to seek care compared to a doctor’s office.
  • Technological costs. Many telehealth services currently rely on access to broadband internet, which some patients can’t afford or can’t access with their current phones, laptops, tablets or other technologies.
  • Lagging education about telehealth services. Many patients may not know how telehealth works or that its services exist. They also may not know how to access care through existing telehealth and telemedicine channels. More patient education is needed to improve patients’ abilities to access services through unconventional methods.

Leverage Technology as a Leader in Health Administration

Health care communities have embraced telehealth as an important part of public health. As people continue to demand telehealth services and an increasing number of practitioners offer fully online or hybrid telehealth services, leaders in health administration will need to understand how these technologies operate in the larger context of a growing health care industry.

If you’re interested in becoming a leader in the health care industry, to understand. With the right training, you could be in a position to assist patients and providers as they engage more and more with telehealth. Explore the Executive Master of Health Administration degree through USC Price and learn how it could help you become part of the changing health care landscape.


Recommended Readings

7 Ways to Improve Patient Outcomes

How Health Care Data Analytics Improves Quality of Care

What Can You Do with a Health Administration Degree? The Best Career Paths for Master’s Graduates



American Academy of Family Physicians, Telehealth and Telemedicine

Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, National Survey Trends in Telehealth Use in 2021: Disparities in Utilization and Audio vs. Audio Services

Becker’s Hospital Review, “27M Households Were Unable to Visit a Physician Virtually in 2021, Report Shows”

Becker’s Hospital Review, “7 Stats That Show How Americans Used Telehealth in 2021”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Telemedicine Use

Health Resources and Services Administration, What Is Telehealth?

Kaiser Family Foundation, “Medicare and Telehealth: Coverage and Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Options for the Future”

Medical Group Management Association, Data Report: Telehealth’s Future in Focus