Are Telehealth Services for the Elderly a Solution to the Treatment Gap?

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Telehealth services for the elderly could replace regular checkups.

One of the biggest barriers to proper medical treatment today is access. About 3.6 million people miss medical appointments on an annual basis due to transportation issues. Meanwhile, access to in-home services is limited due to a nationwide skilled nursing shortage. There is a major treatment gap, a big difference between the number of individuals who need treatment and those who get it. Telehealth services for the elderly could help close this gap, reducing the number of missed appointments while also ensuring those with chronic health conditions get the care they need. 

Applications of Telehealth Services for the Elderly 

There is a definite shortage of registered nurses and other caregivers able to provide in-home care for seniors. That shortage is only going to grow, as it’s estimated that 1 million nurses will retire over the next ten to 15 years. Individuals who want to age in place may see their options limited, as they won’t have the medical support they need to do so. However, in many cases, telemedicine can replace in-home care. Here are just a few types of telehealth services for the elderly that may be able to take the place of physical appointments:

  • Mental health treatment: Counseling, therapy, and psychiatric treatment are obvious applications of telehealth, as they require little or no hands-on treatment and the effectiveness of telepsychiatry is proven. Remote mental health therapies are helpful in serving a group of individuals who very commonly go untreated due to lack of access to medical providers. Depression in the elderly is common but not often acknowledged or dealt with, especially when older patients are facing other, more visible, health problems as well.
  • Chronic disease management: Individuals with ongoing, incurable illnesses and injuries usually require regular appointments to adjust medication dosage or discuss other treatment options. Many of these are quick check-ins with no major changes. Telehealth services can simplify these visits and save patients money and the hassle of travel.
  • Palliative care: Pain control and medical support during long-term and terminal illnesses have proven to be a great applications for telehealth services. In palliative care cases, individuals may be too sick to travel or are unable to get a timely appointment for sudden breakthrough pain. Telehealth gives these individuals a direct line to a medical provider from the comfort of their home.
  • Family caregiver support: Telehealth isn’t just for the patient. It’s also an excellent resource for those who care for them. One example comes from the Veteran’s Health Administration. They rolled out a telehealth program to support individuals taking care of spouses with dementia. Participants reported feeling more confident in providing care thanks to the weekly hour-long teleconference sessions. Meanwhile, the administration reported a savings of about $2,768 per patient after six months.

Telehealth services make care more accessible for individuals with limited mobility, as well as those in rural areas who have trouble finding home health aids to assist them. That’s not to say these programs are perfect. There’s still a sizeable learning curve to consider. 

The Limitations of Telehealth

Telehealth’s success is obviously dependent on technology, so when these services fail, that’s often the culprit. In a study completed on telehealth programs for elderly individuals, the overall success rate of a video call was 49 percent. In other words, only 56 of the 114 attempted calls were successful in putting the patient face-to-face with a medical social worker or other healthcare worker. 

It’s likely that future technology advances will make telehealth services a lot more user-friendly.

To participate in a telehealth program, the patient needs to have the cognitive and technological abilities needed to initiate one of these sessions. In many cases, that’s impractical, and it acts as a major barrier to the adoption of telemedicine by older patients. The generation most likely to need healthcare, the Silent Generation (now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s), lags behind all others when it comes to technology adoption. Less than half of them even have broadband internet access at home.  

On the upside, the future audience for these services–Baby Boomers–is much more tech-savvy. About three-quarters of that generation currently have broadband access, and the vast majority have a working knowledge of the internet and computer technology. It’s also likely that technology advances will make these services a lot more user-friendly, smoothing out the learning curve and speeding the adoption of telemedicine services. 

The Future of Telehealth

Today’s healthcare workers can speak with patients, access imaging and lab results, and send in orders for tests and prescriptions remotely. To make the process even more seamless, new technologies are being developed that make receiving healthcare via video conferencing easier and more secure.

Blockchain is a major factor in this. Information silos are a common issue in healthcare, as they prevent medical providers from getting access to the information they need. However, blockchain is a secure peer-to-peer system which eliminates barriers and allows everyone in the network to access the records. Meanwhile, that data is protected from tampering and unauthorized access through encryption. Technology like this is crucial for telehealth systems, as it will ensure patient data is both secure and remotely accessible. Blockchain video conferencing may also help ensure that virtual doctors’ appointments are secure and HIPAA-compliant.

Telehealth services for the elderly are poised to make medical treatment more accessible and affordable.

Another likely update is the integration of virtual and augmented reality components into telehealth calls. Immersive technology will make telemedicine services more like a traditional office visit and medical providers can enjoy the benefit of 3D modeling over a distance, which will enable them to complete more thorough exams and improve diagnostic accuracy.  

Telehealth services for the elderly are poised to make medical treatment more accessible and affordable. That’s crucial as the population ages and the skilled nursing shortage becomes more pronounced. As it grows more sophisticated, telemedicine could provide a much-needed way to close the treatment gap and ensure that a vulnerable portion of the population enjoys high-quality medical care.  

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