A woman sitting in front of her laptop at home taking notes during a telehealth appointment.

The Potential of Telehealth for Seniors

How Does Telehealth Work?

Telehealth is when modern communication technology is used to provide healthcare in the comfort of your home. Various forms of telehealth have been around for quite a while, but few people were aware of it until we needed to reduce in-person contact to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So, how does telehealth work?

The telehealth market was around $175 billion in 2020, compared to $45 billion in 2019. During the past year, most health insurers updated their policies and rules to expand coverage for these services. At the same time, the public, including seniors, started using video calls to connect with family and friends, so they became more comfortable with using this technology for health services as well.

In this article we will discuss what telehealth is, the types of healthcare it can be best be used for, the benefits for seniors, and the pitfalls you should avoid. There are also some how-to tips on how to get the most out of your telehealth appointment.

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is any service where modern communication technology is used to deliver healthcare remotely. It can involve one or more of a normal phone call, an instant messaging service, a live video call on a smartphone or computer, a portal or app for exchanging health information, and even remote monitoring in the form of apps or wearable devices.

The term telemedicine usually refers to a consultation with a medical doctor, similar to a visit to their rooms. Telehealth is a broader definition which includes healthcare provided by any member of the health team, such as nurses, physical therapists, emergency service personnel, dieticians, and mental healthcare providers.

Obviously there will be many instances that will still require you to visit to your healthcare provider for an actual physical exam or diagnostic tests, x-rays, and scans. However, there are many healthcare services that can be provided just as effectively via modern communication technology, saving both time and money.

What Can Telehealth Be Used For?

Situations that lend themselves to remote care include:

Consultation and Treatment of Everyday Minor Ailments

The healthcare provider can question you about your signs and symptoms. During a video call they can also make observations, such as your general condition, as though you were sitting across from them in the consulting room.

They can then advise on treatment and send a prescription on to the pharmacy for delivery to your home. The outcome could also be to ask you to visit them in person for a full examination, go immediately to an emergency room, or they may order blood tests or other investigations.

Home Care During Illness or After Hospitalization

The healthcare provider can establish whether your recovery is progressing according to what is expected and give advice about any concerns you might have. They can, for example, assess wound healing after surgery and teach you how to care for your wound.

Monitoring Chronic Conditions

Telehealth could provide for more frequent follow-ups and monitoring than is possible with in-person visits. This is particularly significant for seniors or people with chronic conditions combined with the shortage of healthcare personnel.

The healthcare provider can monitor your condition, educate, and refer you to other services such as physical therapy, an optometrist or dietician, and even be on 24-hour standby to give advice and support to you or your caregiver when needed. Monitoring might include reports, shared through digital devices, on vital signs such as blood pressure, blood glucose readings, dietary intake, and amount of exercise.

Pre-operative Preparation

Those parts of the patient assessment that do not require physical examination – such as personal details and a full medical history – can be completed before the admission date. This also allows for healthcare staff to order further laboratory investigations based on the information obtained and preparing in advance to meet special needs once the patient is admitted.

Mental Health Services

We are all familiar with the crisis intervention services, like suicide hotlines, which have been around for quite some time. Today, and especially with the mental health problems triggered by the COVID-19 social distancing measures, telehealth has expanded dramatically in this field.

Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health practitioners are now offering remote services in the form of video conferencing. This visual communication is ideal because the consultant is able to not only talk to the client but also observe all the subtle non-verbal cues.

Advantages of Telehealth

Using telehealth services can make your life easier all round. The benefits include:

  • Saving you, and possibly a relative or friend who has to take you, the time and effort of having to drive to the doctor’s rooms, find parking, and waiting your turn.
  • Remote consultations cost less than in-person visits and you also save on travel expenses.
  • Reducing unnecessary visits to the doctor and emergency rooms.
  • Improved follow-up care after illness or for chronic conditions. This helps to keep patients out of hospitals.
  • Providing health services to the elderly who are homebound and who cannot afford to move to a nursing home.
  • Bringing health services to remote areas and where there is a shortage of healthcare staff.
  • Providing education and ongoing support to caregivers. This not only improves care but also reduces their stress.

Disadvantages of Telehealth

While there are benefits to virtual healthcare, there can be some deficits too. Some cons may be:

  • The user must have access to the necessary technology and feel relatively comfortable with using it.
  • The service might not be covered by the client’s medical insurance.
  • Technical issues could interfere with the consultation. For example, the equipment might malfunction at the time of the appointment.
  • The privacy of a client’s personal medical information might pose a challenge. Service providers, however, do install advanced security measures to maintain the privacy of digitally stored client data.

How Telehealth Appointments Work

Remote consultations are mostly through video calls because it allows for both verbal and non-verbal communication, similar to in-person contact.

You will need a smartphone, tablet or computer with a working microphone and camera and a reliable internet connection. You book an appointment by calling your chosen healthcare provider’s office or maybe even via a messaging app. They will provide you with the information you need to connect for the consultation, either through a website or an app. After this, meeting with your healthcare provider is as simple as logging in at the set time.

If you are not tech savvy you might find the whole idea daunting. However, it is really not difficult, and once the ice is broken you will probably wonder why you were so worried.

Tips for an Effective Appointment

Use the following tips to ensure a smooth and successful telehealth consultation:

  • Check with you health insurer whether they cover the particular telehealth service you want to use.
  • Make sure everything works and become familiar with the technology before the time of the appointment. If necessary, ask a family member or friend to show you how it works or even to be on standby to make the connection for you at the appointed time.
  • Prepare for the consultation by writing a list of the symptoms and problems you want to discuss and the questions you want to ask. If you have the equipment, it might be a good idea to get readings of relevant vital signs, such as your blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, and blood sugar level.
  • Identify a suitable setting in your home for the meeting – it should be private and reasonably quiet. Don’t forget that your cat walking over the keyboard could disconnect your conversation mid-sentence!
  • Consider whether you would like your partner or caregiver to also sit in on the consultation. They can often share information you did not think about, might have questions of their own about your care, and afterwards, help you to remember the healthcare provider’s instructions and advice.

Telehealth for the Future

The technology for telehealth has been around for a while. However, its use and acceptance has grown rapidly during the past year because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Telehealth has great potential for more affordable and accessible healthcare for seniors. Remote healthcare will most likely continue to expand in the future, improving services for the aged and helping them to maintain their health and independence for longer.