How Telemedicine is Transforming Senior Health Care

January 11, 2016 by By Julie Potyraj – Guest Blogger

Polly, age 78, and suffering from obesity-related health issues, is sitting on her sofa on a snowy afternoon. At 3 p.m., it’s time for her wellness appointment. Polly turns on her iPad (supplied by her doctor’s office), and sees her physician’s face smiling back at her. The doctor has already received information on Polly’s blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure via a remote monitoring system that sends the data directly to his office. After chatting for a bit, Polly shows the doctor a mild rash on her arm. Upon evaluating the condition—made possible by high-definition video conferencing equipment—her physician recommends a round of antibiotics and transmits a prescription to the local pharmacy. Thirty minutes later, the appointment is over, and Polly hasn’t left the warmth and comfort of her home.

This scenario is not from some futuristic film—it’s telemedicine, and it’s gaining momentum in health care settings across the world. Also referred to as telehealth, telemedicine is defined by the industry as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.” This is more than just a trend; 52 percent of hospitals already use remote technologies to deliver clinical services.[1]

The Impact for Seniors and Health Care as a Whole

For aging adults with mobility and transportation problems, telemedicine can offer a welcome respite from in-person office visits. Frequent doctor’s appointments become less of a strain for seniors as well as their caregivers, who often must take time off work to accompany their loved one.

The early intervention afforded by telehealth also helps prevent unnecessary emergency room visits and hospital readmissions. While this is good news for patients themselves, it also helps ease the burden on America’s health care system by improving efficiency and reducing costs. Consider the following real-world examples:

  • An Illinois-based skilled nursing home chain is using telemedicine to minimize readmissions and eliminate unneeded ER visits, saving the health system hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Through this program, which involves using video teleconferencing to enable bedside evaluation by board-certified physicians, approximately 81 percent of patients using the technology can be treated on-site.
  • In North Carolina, telemedicine is helping seniors diagnosed with diabetes, COPD, and heart failure remain in their homes and out of the hospital for longer periods. This is accomplished by monitoring these patients remotely in between skilled nursing visits using specialized telehealth technologies.

Medicare is Warming to Telehealth

In 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) delighted telemedicine advocates by adding seven new payment codes covering additional telehealth services, such as annual wellness visits and psychotherapy. However, there is still work to be done. In an effort to help all Medicare recipients enjoy the benefits of telemedicine, organizations such as the American Telemedicine Association continue to actively encourage CMS and Congress to eliminate the arbitrary restrictions that limit coverage.

Would you like to be on the cutting edge of telemedicine and other health care issues? Learn more about MHA@GW, the online master of health administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. 

[1] American Hospital Association. The Promise of Telehealth For Hospitals, Health Systems and Their Communities. Trendwatch. January 2015.