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Is There a Difference between Telemedicine and Telehealth?

While telemedicine is the older of the two phrases, telehealth is rapidly gaining acceptance, in large part because of the evolution of the healthcare landscape.

Source: Thinkstock

Today’s healthcare ecosystem is filled with references to and examples of telemedicine and telehealth – in some cases, the two terms are used interchangeably. Whether they mean the same thing is a topic of considerable debate.

In general terms, telemedicine is considered the clinical application of technology, while telehealth encompasses a broader, consumer-facing approach – “a collection of means or methods, not a speci­fic clinical service, to enhance care delivery and education,” according to the federal network of telehealth resource centers.

“While ‘telemedicine’ has been more commonly used in the past, ‘telehealth’ is a more universal term for the current broad array of applications in the ­field,” the TRC network states in its online resource guide. “Its use crosses most health service disciplines, including dentistry, counseling, physical therapy and home health, and many other domains. Further, telehealth practice has expanded beyond traditional diagnostic and monitoring activities to include consumer and professional education. Note that while a connection exists between health information technology (HIT), health information exchange (HIE) and telehealth, neither HIE nor HIT are considered to be telehealth.”

Origins of telemedicine

A landmark 2010 report by the World Health Organization found that telemedicine – literally meaning “healing from a distance” — can be traced back to the mid-1800s, was first featured in published accounts early on in the 20th Century, and adopted its modern form in the late 1960s and early 1970s, primarily through the military and space industries. Owing to the fact that much of the technology encompassed in today’s telemedicine platform wasn’t around back then, and noting a 2007 study that found 104 different peer-reviewed definitions for the word, the WHO settled on its own broad-based definition:

“The delivery of healthcare services, where distance is a critical factor, by all healthcare professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of healthcare providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.”

Even then, the WHO noted the presence of telehealth:

“Some distinguish telemedicine from telehealth with the former restricted to service delivery by physicians only, and the latter signifying services provided by health professionals in general, including nurses, pharmacists, and others. However, for the purpose of this report, telemedicine and telehealth are synonymous and used interchangeably.”

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Waxing and waning of "telemedicine"

While telemedicine is the older of the two phrases, telehealth is rapidly gaining acceptance, in large part because of the evolution of the healthcare landscape. The rise of consumer-directed healthcare and the shift from fee-based care to quality- and outcomes-based care has put more of an emphasis on health and wellness and care management. And in that atmosphere, telehealth fits the mold.

Even the American Telemedicine Association also considers telemedicine and telehealth to be interchangeable. “While the term telehealth is sometimes used to refer to a broader definition of remote healthcare that does not always involve clinical services, (the) ATA uses the terms in the same way one would refer to medicine or health in the common vernacular,” the organization states. 

“Formally defined, telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status,” the ATA writes. “Telemedicine includes a growing variety of applications and services using two-way video, e-mail, smart phones, wireless tools and other forms of telecommunications technology.”

“Telemedicine is not a separate medical specialty,” the organization continues. “Products and services related to telemedicine are often part of a larger investment by healthcare institutions in either information technology or the delivery of clinical care. Even in the reimbursement fee structure, there is usually no distinction made between services provided on site and those provided through telemedicine and often no separate coding required for billing of remote services. ATA has historically considered telemedicine and telehealth to be interchangeable terms, encompassing a wide definition of remote healthcare. Patient consultations via video conferencing, transmission of still images, e-health including patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education, consumer-focused wireless applications and nursing call centers, among other applications, are all considered part of telemedicine and telehealth.”

Source: Thinkstock

In its mHealth Roadmap, the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) muddies the waters a bit. It uses the Health and Human Services Definition for telehealth — “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support remote clinical healthcare, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration” — then goes on to say that “telemedicine usage ranges from synchronous video chat between a patient and a doctor, to conferencing between doctors, to conferencing between doctors and allied health professionals (e.g., nutritionists, physical therapists), to providing live or recorded presentations to groups of patients who are geographically separated.”

In 2014, the Department of Health & Human Services Department sought to clarify the two terms in a post on HealthIT.gov:

“Telehealth is different from telemedicine because it refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare services than telemedicine. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.”

And according to the Center for Connected Health Policy, “telemedicine” often refers to traditional clinical diagnosis and monitoring that is delivered by technology, while “telehealth” describes the wide range of diagnosis and management, education and other related fields of healthcare.

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Types of telehealth

Telehealth can thus be broken down into four distinct categories, according to the CCHP: mHealth, remote patient monitoring, store-and-forward care and live video.

As the CCHP notes, different organizations have different definitions for telehealth. California very specifically defines it as “the mode of delivering healthcare services and public health via information and communication technologies to facilitate the diagnosis, consultation, treatment, education, care management and self-management of a patient's healthcare while the patient is at the originating site and the healthcare provider is at a distant site. Telehealth facilitates patient self-management and caregiver support for patients and includes synchronous interactions and asynchronous store and forward transfers.” The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), meanwhile, defines it as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

Also in 2014, the journal Telemedicine and e-Health published a study that found seven different definitions of telehealth in use in federal agencies alone.

“Although many definitions are similar, there are nuanced differences that reflect each organization's legislative intent and the population they serve,” the study concluded. “These definitions affect how telemedicine has been or is being applied across the healthcare landscape, reflecting the U.S. government's widespread and influential role in healthcare access and service delivery. The evidence base suggests that a common nomenclature for defining telemedicine may benefit efforts to advance the use of this technology to address the changing nature of healthcare and new demands for services expected as a result of health reform.”

Those differences might also be dangerous. A telehealth platform might very well produce a very different outcome from a telemedicine platform.

Roger Downey, communications manager for Arizona-based GlobalMed, has a strong opinion on the differences between telemedicine and what he calls direct-to-consumer (DTC) telehealth — and he’ll call someone out when they use the two terms indiscriminately.

“For the most part, an interaction — whether in person, via telemedicine or on the phone — between a patient and a physician can be beneficial,” Downey wrote in a 2015 blog. “The sticking point is the issuance of a prescription medication to a previously unknown person who the doctor has never examined and for which the doctor has no access to the medical record. And here's where telemedicine differs from telehealth. During a telemedicine visit, the patient is seen by the provider. A patient presenter is with the patient in most cases, and follows the directions of the remote provider in placing a stethoscope or exam camera on the patient's body, providing both sounds and images. The remote provider also has the benefit of an array of other medical devices to gather patient information not available to a D2C telehealth physician.”

“Another distinction between telemedicine and D2C telehealth is that telemedicine consultations are often with medical specialists like cardiologists, dermatologists and pulmonologists,” Downey continued. “These often occur when the patient is in an underserved rural community and the specialist is in a large urban area. The distance makes it difficult to make and keep appointments otherwise. D2C telehealth, on the other hand, best deals with minor primary care issues over the phone. If deemed to be a more serious health concern, the patient is told to make an appointment with a specialist or to proceed to a hospital emergency room."

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