Questions and Answers Related to Telemedicine and Telehealth


What is Telemedicine?

In brief, telemedicine is the remote delivery of healthcare services and clinical information using telecommunications technology.  This includes a wide array of clinical services using internet, wireless, satellite and telephone media. American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has a more comprehensive explanation, complete with examples, here.

What is the Distinction Between Telemedicine and Telehealth?

While some have parsed out unique definitions for each word, ATA treats “telemedicine” and “telehealth” as synonyms and uses the terms interchangeably; however telemedicine typically refers to the actual physician-patient encounter, whereas telehealth refers to the technology and tools used to deliver a telemedicine patient encounter. In both cases, we are referring to the use of remote healthcare technology to deliver clinical medical services.

How Typical is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is a significant and rapidly growing component of healthcare in the United States.  There are currently about 200 telemedicine networks, with 3,500 service sites in the U.S. Nearly 1 million Americans are currently using remote cardiac monitors and in 2011, the Veterans Health Administration delivered over 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine. Over half of all U.S. hospitals now use some form of telemedicine. Around the world, millions of patients use telemedicine to monitor their vital signs, remain healthy and out of hospitals and emergency rooms. Consumers and physicians download health and wellness applications for use on their cell phones.

Is Telemedicine Safe?

Yes. Guided by technical standards and clinical practice guidelines, and backed by decades of research and demonstrations, telemedicine is a safe and cost-effective way to extend the delivery of healthcare.  ATA has produced a series of standards, guidelines and best practices for healthcare providers to ensure that they are using telemedicine responsibly.

What is mHealth? Is it a Type of Telemedicine or Something Different?

mHealth, also known as mobile health, is a form of telemedicine using wireless devices and cell phone technologies.  It is useful to think of mHealth as a tool through which telemedicine can be practiced. mHealth is a particularly powerful development because it delivers clinical care through consumer-grade hardware and allows for greater patient and provider mobility. ATA has a Special Interest Group dedicated to the practice and development of mHealth.

What is the Relationship Between Telemedicine and Health Information Technologies (HIT)?

HIT is the generation and transmission of digital health data, often through an electronic health record. Generally, HIT is used for administrative functions (keeping track of patient’s health history, sharing information between providers, etc.), while telemedicine is the delivery of an actual clinical service. HIT can facilitate telemedicine but it is not a requirement for delivering remote healthcare.

Where Can Patients Get Access to Telemedicine Services?

Patients should ask their doctor, hospital or healthcare provider about telemedicine services that are already available. In many cases, the provider may have an existing home health monitoring program or other telemedicine services.  There are also numerous private companies that sell basic telehealth services, including 24/7 access to a health professional, remote monitoring, medication adherence and online wellness apps.

What is the Market Size for Telemedicine?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions at ATA. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult to answer.  Estimates on the market size for telemedicine vary widely, depending on each analyst’s precise definition of telemedicine. While they can’t agree on a single number, one area where all research firms concur is that the telemedicine market is growing rapidly.

Does Medicare or Medicaid Pay for Telemedicine Services?

Medicare: Yes… in certain circumstances. Many “telehealth” services, such as remote radiology, pathology and some cardiology, are covered simply as “physician services.” For traditional fee-for-service beneficiaries living in rural areas, Medicare covers physician services using videoconferencing. The ~14 million beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage (managed care) plans, have complete flexibility in using telehealth, as long as their provider offers the service. ATA is pushing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and Congress to removing the arbitrary restrictions that limit telehealth coverage, so that all beneficiaries can get this great benefit. The ATA Wiki has details explaining coverage details in Medicare.

Medicaid: Almost every state Medicaid plan specifically covers at least some telehealth services, however states vary greatly in their coverage. State-specific information is available on www.atawiki.org and the 50 State Telemedicine Gaps Analysis: Coverage and Reimbursement. ATA has challenged each state to fully cover telemedicine to increase coverage while simultaneously reducing service costs.

Do Private Insurance Plans Usually Cover Telemedicine Services?

31 states and the District of Columbia require that private insurers cover telehealth the same as they cover in-person services. Many other insurers cover at least some telehealth service–and many more have expressed interest in expanding their telehealth coverage. To find out if your insurance company covers telehealth services, please contact your benefits manager.

Health care or Healthcare?

“Health care” is used when describing the actions of a provider, for example, “Dr. Smith is in charge of Betty’s health care. “Healthcare” is used when describing a healthcare system, for example, “Do you have healthcare insurance?”

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