Telehealth: Could It Simplify Life for Seniors and Caregivers?

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The proliferation of mobile devices and various apps, such as FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom, have changed the way we communicate with each other. These technologies are rapidly expanding into the healthcare realm and telehealth appears to be growing in popularity. In 2017, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that more than 60% of all American health care institutions and 40% to 50% of all American hospitals utilized some form of telehealth. Telehealth isn't just for the younger, tech-savvy generations, however. New services have the potential to simplify healthcare for seniors and their caregivers.

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth is a broad umbrella for a variety of care options. Mobile health is one type of telehealth that has existed for some time. Mobile health refers to self-monitoring that patients do at home. Data is then transferred to clinicians electronically. For instance, I was helped my Dad do periodic, remote checks of his pacemaker with a small machine that sent the data to his cardiologist via the cellular network. From a caregiver's perspective, this was far more convenient than bringing my Dad to an office visit during the workday.

Another example of mobile health in action includes ongoing monitoring for individuals with chronic conditions. Some ccongestive heart failure patients weigh themselves and take their blood pressure each morning. This data is sent to their caregivers via mobile device. If the patient’s weight increases, this suggests that fluid is accumulating in the body and the clinician may recommend changing the dosage of a diuretic or other type of medication. These interventions can be done immediately, without traveling to the doctor's office.

A less mature form of telehealth is telemedicine. Telemedicine is real-time, two-way videoconferencing between a doctor and a patient. This is starting to gain traction among private insurers as a way to reduce costly emergency room visits and provide more convenient care options to patients. My own insurer, for instance, recently rolled out a service called LiveHealth Online.

Telemedicine seems like a good option for seniors who go to routine appointments. However, Medicare has been slow to accept telemedicine. Currently, Medicare only reimburses for telehealth services if a patient lives in a rural area where access to healthcare is limited. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is actively exploring ways to lift these restrictions and expand use of telehealth for Medicare recipients. Medicaid has no restrictions, however, for state coverage of telehealth.

Is Telehealth a Good Option for Your Family Member?

As a caregiver, you may want to consider whether telehealth could be a useful addition to your family member's healthcare program. Here are three considerations:

  1. How tech-savvy is your family member? Some seniors may not have the technology knowledge to handle telehealth services on their own. This doesn't mean, however, that they can't benefit from telehealth. As a caregiver, you may need to handle remote monitoring activities (such as remote pacemaker checks) or participate in telemedicine video conferences. This additional effort may outweigh the time and stress involved with bringing a family member to a doctor's office.

  2. Does your family member have conditions that could benefit from telehealth services? Not every patient's medical profile is a good fit for telehealth. Consider whether their medical appointments are fairly routine with non-complex monitoring like blood pressure checks or heart rate data gathering. Telehealth can be a good fit for chronic conditions, wound care, medication management, and counseling.

  3. Ask the physician whether they offer telehealth services that would be covered by your family member's insurance. Increasing numbers of doctors are sympathetic to the stress that caregivers experience related to office visits, especially when it means taking time off work. My Dad's cardiologist, for instance, was open to remote monitoring and other approaches that took some of the pressure of me.

It will most likely be some time before Medicare patients can take full advantage of telemedicine and telehealth offerings. However, it may be worthwhile for caregivers to explore what options are available that could simplify life for family members and themselves.

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