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The Benefits and Challenges of Telemedicine for Seniors & Caregivers

Telemedicine is gaining momentum around the world due to many factors — such as the high costs of health care, the growth of senior populations, the increasing burden of chronic disease, and a shortage of health care professionals. In a recent post, MHA@GW, an online Master of Health Administration program with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, outlined how telemedicine is providing new solutions that are helping to increase access to care and decrease costs by reducing the number of hospital readmissions that patients must face. Here, we’ll examine what telemedicine is, the benefits and challenges it represents, and how family caregivers can best access it to help support the seniors they care for.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine is sometimes also referred to as “telehealth” and refers to “the use of technology to deliver health care services and information in order to improve access, quality and cost.” Specifically, it makes use of communications technologies such as videoconferencing, remote monitoring through a variety of devices, telephone calls, email and texting to improve care access to patients outside of the brick-and-mortar setting of traditional health care.

What are the benefits for seniors?

There are many benefits to the use of telemedicine, including the ability to access care without the need to travel to a health care facility and better monitor chronic conditions — like congestive heart failure (CHF). For seniors with mobility challenges, this can be a tremendous benefit — especially in terms of avoiding admission or readmission to the hospital, which is why 52 percent of hospitals are now using telehealth, and another 10 percent are getting ready to jump into the action. In addition, studies show that the use of telemedicine (telehealth) also helps relieve family caregiver burden when a loved one comes home from the hospital.

Telemedicine has also been proven effective for treating depression, which is something that many seniors struggle with. In fact, one study found that talk therapy by two-way video helped older veterans with depression as much as in-person sessions did. According to lead author Dr. Leonard Egede, “Psychotherapy works for depression whether you deliver it by face-to-face or the telemedicine approach,” and telemedicine is a good option for “older adults who have barriers to mobility, stigma or geographic isolation.”

What are the challenges?

Telemedicine has been widely adopted in other countries for several years — such as India. A 2012 report noted that practitioners there were using short messaging services (SMS), inexpensive digital cameras, and the Internet to support patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD) at home at about one-fifteenth of the cost of treatment within a health care setting in the U.S.

Challenges that have delayed the adoption of telemedicine in the U.S. include issues related to reimbursement, state licensure requirements, and validation by health care professionals. However, there is a growing acceptance of telemedicine as an integral part of health care. In fact, in January 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a new provider reimbursement code for non-face-to-face health care services for patients who have chronic medical conditions — which is symbolic of the greater shift that’s occurring in the country in which more patients are able to receive care independent of time and place.

Tips for family caregivers

If you are caring for someone who could benefit from the use of telemedicine, here are a few tips to help you access it:

  • Ask about availability. Many doctors, hospitals and other health care providers already have existing home health monitoring or other telemedicine services available.
  • Explore the options. There are a wide array of private companies that sell basic telehealth services. These can include round-the-clock access to a health care professional, remote monitoring, medication adherence options and online wellness apps.
  • Establish trust. With a recent study finding that 54.1 percent of respondents older than 65 would not trust a virtual diagnosis, establishing trust with both the telemedicine process — and provider — is key. Sixty-five percent of the study’s respondents said that they would be more likely to trust a virtual diagnosis if they’d met with the provider first. In the case of senior care, this is the more likely scenario.

Although independent consumer resources (those not attached to a specific company) for the use of telemedicine are not yet widely available, there are a number of resources for providers that you can access to find out more. The Center for Technology and Aging, and the American Telemedicine Association are both great places to start.

Bio: Julie Potyraj is the community manager for the MHA@GW and MPH@GW blogs, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Her passion for public health developed while she was a community health and education volunteer in rural Zambia. She is currently an MPH@GW student.