Is Telehealth the Answer Senior Patients Have Been Waiting for?
Telehealth: A Definition
According to the Med News Ledger, telehealth, or telemedicine, enables “interactive communication between a patient and healthcare provider at a different place, and supported by audio and video equipment along with integrated medical devices, enables the clinicians to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients remotely.” The global market for telemedicine is expected to reach nearly $64 billion by 2022, led by the United States and Europe. That market will be aided by the growing number of large employers planning to offer telehealth coverage. Of those surveyed, 96 percent plan to offer telemedicine for employees in states that allow it.
Seniors and Telehealth
But what does this burgeoning technology mean for the senior demographic that is largely now out of the workforce? Telehealth means freedom. Through the use of this technology, seniors are able to stay in their homes longer while keeping up to date with their health care needs. This option, in turn, keeps them safe and appeases their concerned loved ones and caregivers. Nine in 10 adults, age 40 and over, report they would agree to the use of telemedicine for either themselves or an aging loved one, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Telemedicine could be a saving grace for the 62 million people lacking access to adequate healthcare services in the U.S. - many of them seniors. For those patients, aid can’t come soon enough. It is anticipated that by 2020 there will be a shortage of as many as 45,000 primary care providers.
The shortage of doctors is a direct result of the growing senior population - which is expected to skyrocket as the baby boomer population ages. “In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The senior demographic of 2050 will be better versed in technology and current reports are suggesting that many of them will prefer to “age in place” as opposed to move to an assisted living facility.
This improved autonomy can lead to decreased rates of depression, a common side effect of being uprooted and moved from the place they’ve called home for decades. Telehealth monitoring enabled one senior living non-profit in Pennsylvania to reduce the number of patients moving from a senior living community into nursing homes from 20 to 12 percent. The success here signifies there’s opportunity to further implement monitoring across the country, giving the senior community the ability to age safely in place with proper medical attention.
Telehealth options supplement the rising need for care with easy access to medical services, help save more lives, and lift the heavy burden of travel and other associated costs that are currently on patients. According to an AJMC report, adoption of telemedicine practices “could collectively save U.S. nursing homes $479 million annually by reducing transportation costs related to in-person physician office visits.”
Telehealth and Cancer Care
Telemedicine offers patients the ability to receive necessary treatment either close to home or in the home. This alleviates the need to travel each week, or even each day, to doctors offices or hospitals that may be hours away. This may be especially useful for those battling rare diseases like mesothelioma cancer, when specialists are needed but are few and far between. Telemedicine enables doctors to collaborate on cases with those more specialized, including those outside their practice, state, or even country. In addition to monitoring and treating the primary disease, other services, including nutritional and psychiatric advice, can be utilized to help patients with all their healthcare needs.
Patients, senior or otherwise, living in areas where access to care is the most scarce could see the biggest impact from implementing telehealth practices. For example, populations most in need of increased access to cancer care include Native American nations, Southern states, and non-urban populations.
Telemedicine has been used in Kansas cancer care since 1995. The University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) has two cancer clinics in rural Hays and Horton, Kansas. Telehealth has been leveraged to help with diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care for patients. Through the use of interactive televideo systems, video cameras, and internet protocol, KUMC oncologists are able to communicate with nursing staff at the clinics.
Telehealth and Chronic Conditions
While improving cancer care is impactful for seniors, a majority of health issues within their demographic stem from chronic conditions. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) reports that more than 92 percent of older adults have at least one chronic disease. Fortunately, telehealth can be used effectively in disease management practices. Studies have shown that patients with diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and congestive heart failure have had success using telehealth to service their continuous care needs.
In particular, one study found that through the use of telehealth for patients with congestive heart failure decreased hospital readmission. Remote monitoring using telehealth technology can alert medical care teams if chronic symptoms worsen and allow for immediate intervention which can improve outcomes. The monitoring also enables physicians to receive a more robust, and accurate, medical history to inform changes to care plans.
There is still more to do to streamline telehealth and remove other barriers to entry that currently prevent patients from using these services. One of those barriers is the financial cost associated with receiving care.
For the senior demographic specifically, a large barrier to telehealth use is the knowledge gap. According to a study conducted by HealthMine, “almost 90 percent of seniors recently surveyed said they either don’t have access to telehealth through their Medicare plan or they don’t know if they have it.”
The lack of awareness shows that the chief problem is not that seniors are against using the technology, but that healthcare providers need to emphasize the positives of this option and assist patients in becoming acclimated to the digital systems.
Promising Use of the Health Technology
Even with there being more work to do, roughly two-thirds of Americans in 2015 were willing to speak with their primary care physicians via video. Doctors who were surveyed asking the same question had nearly identical responses. In general, interactions involving the patient-centric way of communicating have increased dramatically, from about 350,000 visits in 2013 to an expected 7 million this year.
Put simply telehealth can reduce tedious wait time, save both patients and doctors money, reduce rehospitalization of patients, provide peace of mind for caregivers, and offer patients more autonomy.
For the sake of all patients, every advancement should be thoroughly investigated, including blossoming technologies like telehealth. Using all the tools possible, including emerging treatments and modes of implementing them, can hopefully improve quality of life, patient prognosis, and lead to better outcomes for all seniors.
Blog posting provided by
Rachel Lynch, Press and Media Coordinator, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance
Society of Certified Senior Advisors