Telehealth: The Wave of the Future is Here

nurse working on her computer

“Your Mom wants to Video Chat with you”

By now most people know what a prompt like this is signaling when you see it on your monitor. If you don’t already use it regularly, you at least have heard of it and know that other people are doing this.

Video chatting conjures up images of sitting in front of your computer, with your child on your lap, and your Mom on the screen opposite of you, waving and smiling into the monitor, asking how you have been doing lately and when you are coming to visit her next, and oh yeah, “are you still taking your vitamins?”

As this scenario plays in your mind…hit pause on that image for me.

Now, remove the kid from your lap, replace your weekend clothes with pajamas, wrap yourself in a blanket, stick a thermometer in your mouth, and replace your Mom’s face with a live doctor.

Congratulations … you are now a telehealth patient.

Almost all of us have the technology in our home or even in our pocket to participate in this today if we wanted to, but most of us just don’t understand it. Like many things in technology however, you will probably figure it out within a few years tops, and don’t worry, it won’t be difficult.

Most health experts won’t give you this definition I’m about to give you on telehealth because they tend to present you with all of the amazing facets and confusing terminology right off the bat, but I’m going to give it to you simply as to avoid confusion.

Telehealth is health care with an internet connection. Period

Please hear me out.

There are quite a few variations of telehealth, but it all boils down to technology and data. In fact, I would sum up the entire field with these steps: Collect, Send, and Receive.

Collect (Sensors and Devices): Any computing device that can video chat and connect to the internet can put a doctor on your screen assuming your internet connection is decent. I covered the home computer in the ‘video chat’ example, but obviously the smart phone is a huge player here as well since it is a computer in its own right.

In addition, you have devices that have sensors such as “wearables.” This would include items like your smart watch or your Fitbit that monitors heart rate, your tennis shoes that track every step of your evening jog and even things you don’t wear but that have smart sensors in them such as a digital thermometer, blood pressure machine, basically any home device that can record your body functions and communicate that to your computer. All of this stuff has continued to become cheaper by the day, especially the sensors they are sticking in them. Manufacturers are starting to stick sensors in everything they make even if they haven’t outlined the exact use for it just yet. Why does my hair dryer need a sensor in it? A company may not know today, but they are likely to stick one in there anyway and commence to figuring it out six months from now.

Send (Internet): The internet is used to simply relay this information you have gathered about yourself, your body readings, your health, from point “A,” which would be your device, to point “B” which would be the next and final step, a health care professional.

Receive (Health Care Facility/Health Care Professional): This is the end point where the data gets gathered/collected and analyzed. This could be a computer monitoring room in a hospital that has been receiving readings night and day from your home devices for many months or years, in which a doctor can walk in and get a print out of your body’s stats whenever they need. Point B could also be a remote location like a doctor’s living room with a laptop using software that they have logged into, so they can use that data to begin reading your stats while asking you questions over a video call.

Collect, Send and Receive

So you video conference with a doctor on your phone, maybe you even send them additional information from the heart monitor you have at home, and that doctor gives you a diagnosis and sends your prescription in to be picked up or delivered to you. That’s it… simple right?

For the most part, yes. However, there has been a problem getting government regulatory boards and legislators to catch up with the break-neck speed of innovation in a lot of tech fields in general and of course, telehealth is no exception.

In the meantime, this industry has a lot of potential being put to use already. Let me give a few examples.

You can establish a “telepharmacy” in a small rural town with a small population. There aren’t enough people living there to sustain a full scale pharmacy with the salary of one or more licensed pharmacists on staff. What they can do however, is establish a small scale telepharmacy and employ a few pharmacy technicians. They can receive prescriptions electronically and video conference with the licensed pharmacist who is in the nearest town one hour away, on a computer screen. That pharmacist can sign off on the script over video, and the patient can be on their way, having saved the gas money and time it would have taken them to drive into the nearest town one hour in each direction.

Another example of telehealth technology are video conferencing robots where the doctor maneuvers through a hospital via a remote controlled robot on wheels. He can come into your room, greet you, roll up to the left side of your bed, ask questions, and roll around to the right side of your bed for a different angle, just as they would in person.

If all of this seems exciting, it is. It’s the future and it’s happening in our lifetime. Soon we will have sensors in our clothes, in our stomach (that’s right, digestible sensors) and you may even have sensors implanted under your skin, all communicating data that will enable us to make healthier choices and monitor our bodies like we monitor our cars and proactively get the oil changed to keep it in top running condition.

Going to the doctor will no longer be a snapshot in time. It won’t just be a reading of what your vitals are at that moment, on that day, that you decided to go get checked out. It will be a full picture of your weight fluctuations, heart activity, and even your physical activity over extended periods of time for a more complete and accurate assessment.

So that is the basics of telehealth. I almost prefer to just call it “health care” at this point because what aspect of our lives doesn’t involve the internet and computers? While lawmakers are still hammering out regulations, it will still be given the unique distinction of “telehealth” just to make things easier. Think about it like you think about your phone, you no longer call it a mobile cellular device, it’s just your phone.

Really, telehealth is just regular health care, modernized and more efficient, and it will soon be coming to a monitor near you.

The basics though, the video chat and the electronic prescriptions, are all happening now. Go online for yourself and search “telemedicine doctors.” Oh and by the way, after you’re done, video call your Mom back, she text messaged you days ago and you still haven’t responded. She probably just wants to make sure you are taking your vitamins, and while you are at it, do her a favor and show her how to download a telehealth app to her phone.

Follow Bula Pharmacy Law Tracking for the latest updates on telepharmacy and telehealth legislation and regulations.