Mar 08th 2021

The Benefits and Limitations of Telehealth

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many providers found themselves in a position where they had to shift some, and then most, of their patient visits to a telehealth environment. “During the first quarter of 2020, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50%, compared with the same period in 2019, with a 154% increase in visits noted in surveillance week 13 in 2020, compared with the same period in 2019," according to an October 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Generally, providers found that delivering care via telemedicine was feasible and brought some clear benefits, but also exposed a few limitations.

Benefits of telehealth

The use of telehealth is often praised for expanding access to patients, especially in underserved or remote areas.

Telehealth also:

1. Minimizes disruption of care. Because they don’t cancel an office visit or reschedule to a later date because of COVID-19 concerns or other reasons, patients tend to get their care uninterrupted.

2. Can provide an effective method of delivering care. Research suggests that telehealth is just as effective as in-person care for some conditions.
Diabetes. A study published in 2015 in Telemedicine journal and e-health found that telemedicine effectively helped people manage their diabetes and improve their glycemic control.
EczemaA clinical trial documented in JAMA Dermatology found that telemedicine helped people manage their atopic dermatitis just as effectively as in-person care.
Mental health. Telehealth can also be an effective method of providing treatment for people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and some other mental health disorders.

3. Offers a safe and convenient experience. When patients can connect with their physicians through a telehealth platform, they can receive care from the comfort and safety of home.
- Telehealth can minimize exposure to airborne diseases, which can be key for immunocompromised or high-risk people, especially during flu season­ or during a pandemic.
- Sick people can stay home and receive care, which minimizes the risk of them spreading contagious diseases to people in the waiting room.
- Telehealth can help people with depression and anxiety. They may find it easier to attend a scheduled a visit if they can access care from home.
- Patients with mobility issues don't have to overcome difficulties going to an office in person.
- Although the time commitment for providers is similar for in-person and telehealth visits, the time commitment for patients can be significantly less due to the elimination of time spent on travel  and in the waiting room.

4. Provides quick access for patients to ask questions. Patients are able to more easily schedule a telehealth appointment to discuss the care they need, and have the chance to ask questions  and express concerns. While chatting with their physician in real time, they can also ask follow-up questions and receive answers quickly.

5. Facilitates reminders of appointments and screenings. Telehealth is more than real-time, synchronous video chats. Telecommunications platforms and portals can provide automated reminders, via text or email, to help patients stay on track of appointments, including screenings.

Limitations of telehealth

However, there are a few limitations to telehealth to consider, too. Here are some common examples:

Some patients prefer hands-on, in-person care and respond better to it.
Some types of care still need to be performed in person, including certain physical examination elements, labs, imaging, and interventional procedures.
Not all health plans cover telehealth visits for all conditions. If a patient's insurance doesn't cover a telehealth visit, they need to be able to afford the out-of-pocket costs to take advantage of a remote appointment.
Not everyone has easy access. Some patients don’t have internet or don’t feel comfortable with the technology.

Making the choice

While telehealth has proven to be a valuable option in many circumstances, it's just as important to deliver high-quality evidence-based care through telehealth as it is in person. Patients will be reassured when they understand that their provider is committed to providing the best possible care to them, regardless of the setting.

 

It is also important to consider that not all patients will choose to make use of telehealth services. Some might be enthusiastic, some may be reluctant. Understanding the benefits and limitations of telehealth is important. And in some situations, offering telehealth visits to patients with the understanding that they might have to come into the office on occasion may be a good compromise.