Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog

What Is Telehealth? The 2022 Guide to Telemedicine

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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When you think about telehealth, do you feel curious or leery? Maybe somewhere in between? Whatever you think, it makes sense. Telehealth isn’t always defined, but health systems rely on it more every day. Eventually you may consider it for yourself or someone you care about, so we want to share some basic information about it. 

What is telehealth?

We’re going to mention both telehealth and telemedicine. What’s the difference between them? Telehealth and telemedicine both use technology to deliver healthcare to patients at a distance. Telehealth is more of a general term, and can include services like nutrition consultations and health education, while telemedicine refers specifically to clinician-run care. People may use the terms interchangeably, and both terms involve the idea of improving health over distance with technology (so, helping improve a patient's health even if both people are not in the same room or not communicating at the same time). Since it's a growing field, telehealth is still developing and being defined.

The history of telehealth

The story of telehealth showcases a fascinating slice of American history. While telehealth sounds modern, clinicians were considering it as early as 1879. That’s when the medical journal The Lancet mentioned calling patients at home to cut down on clinic visits. For context, that’s only three years after Alexander Graham Bell filed his first U.S. telephone patent!

Americans living in rural areas quickly became telehealth pioneers. In Alaska, village health aides sent data to Fairbanks and Anchorage for interpretation. And NASA practiced telehealth in the 1970s to monitor astronauts in space. 

Today telehealth is spreading almost everywhere people don’t have easy access to healthcare. It’s not just for rural Americans though. As telehealth improves, it can offer care options to almost anyone. For example, 76 percent of US hospitals currently offer telehealth technologies. Today doctors, therapists and even dentists rely on telehealth to offer virtual appointments or to complete lab work. 

Common questions about telehealth and telemedicine

Q: How does telehealth work and is it as good as visiting a doctor in person? 

A: That’s a great question. After all, peering at a computer screen doesn’t seem nearly the same as talking in an exam room. In some ways though, maybe that’s a good thing. (Say goodbye to sitting on crinkly paper while wearing a thin gown, for one!) 

As technology improves, healthcare specialists are gaining more ways to collect health information. Your smartphone or smartwatch, for example, may send data from telehealth apps to your doctor, if you want. In some cases you can even send photographs to aid with diagnosis. 

Doctors can schedule virtual appointments to cut down on the time and effort patients spent traveling to appointments and waiting to be seen. This can be especially helpful for patients dealing with chronic pain. Sometimes psychology appointments can also feel more comfortable for patients via telehealth. 

Another advantage is that while telemedicine can happen in real time, it doesn’t have to. For people in rural areas or with unusual schedules, telemedicine can collect health information at the patient’s convenience for a provider to review later. (This is called asynchronous care.) 

Some telemedicine platforms automatically complete health records, and can also help synchronize care between doctors and other members of a care team. Telehealth approaches can also reduce exposures to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or viruses. Telemedicine isn’t a perfect fit for every situation, but it is a flexible way to offer many healthcare services. 

Q: Are telemedicine providers actually top-notch?

A: After all, someone could easily don a white lab coat and pretend to be a doctor online, right? 

Regulations vary by state, but providers using telemedicine are still held to the same licensing standards as brick and mortar providers. Many highly reputable medical centers offer both traditional and telehealth services. 

Some of the most cutting-edge doctors, in fact, use telemedicine. So if you need to be connected with a particular specialist, telehealth might help make that happen. It’s also worth noting that COVID-19 is profoundly impacting the telehealth landscape.

Q: What if I’m not comfortable using technology? 

A: Tech can certainly be a headache. Telehealth providers work hard, however, to handle as much of the complexity as possible. Many interactions are now as simple as hitting the “Join” button in an online interface. 

Long story short, if you have access to a phone or computer, it’s likely telemedicine could work for you, technologically speaking. Some initial findings show that people are becoming more comfortable with telehealth technology in general. 

Q: What if telehealth is just a trend? 

A: If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated telehealth. Patients and providers turned to technology when they weren’t able to meet in person. Now more systems than ever safely and effectively offer services online or over the phone 24 hours a day. 

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During COVID, patients and providers turned to technology when they weren’t able to meet in person. Now many systems offer services online or over the phone 24 hours a day. 

Q: Is my data safe with telehealth?

A: Health providers must still comply with the licensing requirements of the states they work in, even when they’re practicing via telehealth. Federal and state laws and regulations such as HIPAA require telehealth data to be securely stored and handled. So whatever you share online is protected with the same degree of security as at a traditional doctor’s office. To help protect your data, you can add user authentication to your smartphone. 

Q: Can I afford telemedicine (and am I getting a good value for it?)

A: We don’t know your exact situation or healthcare coverage, but we do know that many insurance companies now cover some telehealth services. Exams, mental health appointments, nutrition consultations, and even dental checks are being integrated into telehealth platforms. Additionally, some telehealth providers set their fees upfront, cutting out many costs while passing savings along to patients. 

Q: What if I’m just tired of so many things being online?

A: We hear you. Online technology is no silver bullet, and telemedicine isn’t the right answer for every problem. It is a new version of medical care that adds flexibility and convenience when you need it. 

(To manage the challenges of screen time, we recommend taking regular breaks from smartphones, tablets, or computers, maintaining good posture and using blue UV light protection.)

Telehealth: Yay or nay, from your perspective?

So what do you think? Ultimately the decision about whether or not to try telehealth is up to you. If you do go for it, we have a few tips. 

Tips for telehealth success

  • Ask your current health providers (assuming you’re happy with them, of course) if they offer telehealth services
  • Find out which services your insurance covers
  • If you need new providers, search online for ones who are licensed, have good patient testimonials, and offer the services that matter most to you, such as chronic pain management
  • If you do schedule a consultation with a doctor online in real time, be ready with a list of topics to discuss. Also be ready to take notes
  • You might have an asynchronous appointment, meaning your medical specialist may not interact with you “live,” but will review your data at a different time. If this is the case, think about how that process went. Did you get to report everything you wanted to? Do you know what happens next?
  • If possible, practice any tech tasks ahead of time. (For example, make sure you’ve downloaded any programs you’ll be using, such as Zoom)
  • Have a backup plan in case something glitches (and keep the clinic contact information at hand)
  • If the consultation happened in real time, did your health specialist ask enough questions? Did they listen well and give you enough feedback? 

Clearing’s take on telehealth

Here at Clearing, we believe telehealth offers a lot of promise. It’s a particularly useful approach for those with chronic pain, since people who are hurting often face extra challenges getting to their appointments. Plus, telehealth lets Clearing connect people in pain with rigorously trained pain specialists. 

That’s a huge bonus, since there are a very limited number of pain specialists in the US to support 50 million people in chronic pain. Clearing wants to bring more personalized, empathic care to those in need, and we’re confident telehealth helps us do so.

Ready to try telehealth at Clearing for yourself? 

That’s great — we’re ready, too! Our telehealth services include personalized care recommendations, which could include tailored exercises, medical prescriptions, specially formulated pain-targeting topical creams, nutraceuticals, health coaching and more.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.