What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is using technology to communicate information and deliver health and health-related education services. It’s a broad term. Even if you aren’t especially tech-savvy, you’ve used telehealth if you’ve ever emailed your doctor or refilled a prescription online or over the phone. Video conferencing with your doctor to diagnose symptoms is an example of telehealth that isn’t widely used now, but could be in the future. Telehealth differs from telemedicine in their scope: telehealth is much wider, encompassing more aspects of health care.

There are four main “domains” of telehealth, from the Center for Connected Health Policy:

  • Live Video: Real-time interaction between two parties: a provider and the recipient of health services.
  • Store-and-Forward: A patient, using e-communication, shares a documented history of health, in videos or images, with a provider. The provider uses the documentation to deliver health services after evaluating it.
  • Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM): A patient sends information to a provider using e-communication for status updates when the patient is released to their home or a care facility.
  • Mobile Health (mHealth): Most often used to reach a broad audience by a healthcare organization or another group when promoting education or health practices. These are accessed through mobile phones and tablets.

The future is now
Last year, UnitedHealthcare announced that it would partially or completely cover video chats with doctors by 2016, though it’s not clear if their Medicare plans would be included. They believe virtual visits could be cheaper and easier than going to a doctor’s office.

Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives introduced a bill that would “expand telehealth services through Medicare,” called the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act. The law would also “improve care outcomes, make it easier for patients to connect with their healthcare providers, and help cut costs for patients and providers.” So far, the bill has not been reviewed by committee. Currently, Medicare doesn’t cover all telehealth costs.

To read about UnitedHealthcare’s coverage of doctor video chats and the doctors who perform them, see this NPR article.

For more information on the CONNECT for Health Act, see the fact sheet provided by the legislators here.

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