Mobile health technology, or telehealth as it’s often referred to, is a rapidly developing factor in health care today, promising to make health care better and more efficient. According to a recent survey, 83 percent of physicians in the U.S. already use telehealth technology or mhealth to provide patient care.

Because this is such a new and changing field, there is no set definition for telehealth technology and telehealth job descriptions are still being developed.  The World Health Organization says we can think of it as “medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices.” In other words, telehealth technology is the use of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices to deliver health care and preventive health services….and it’s growing utilization by health care systems is driving the growth in telehealth jobs.

But, beyond formal definitions and theory, where does mhealth come into practice? Health care providers use telehealth technology to:

  • Access clinical information (e.g., through mobile health apps and mobile-enabled EHRs),
  • Collaborate with care teams (e.g., with secure text messaging),
  • Communicate with patients (e.g., through patient portals),
  • Offer real-time monitoring of patients, and
  • Provide health care remotely, also called telemedicine.

Patients use telehealth technology to:

  • Track their own health data through mhealth apps and devices like the Fitbit®,
  • Access their clinical records through mobile-enabled patient portals, and
  • Communicate with their providers (e.g., through HIPAA compliant e-mail and secure text messaging).

Caregivers and Telehealth: An Ideal Match

As a relatively new healthcare delivery approach, telehealth is transforming how nurses approach and deliver care. Telehealth is currently on the rise, and experts predict that the industry could become a $34 billion market by the end of this decade. Telehealth comes in many flavors, from monitoring patients with chronic conditions through video chat, to providing critical care to patients in remote areas. For example, some healthcare systems have created an eHospital care delivery model in which a small team of nurses and intensivists can remotely monitor and support patient care for more than 100 beds in multiple ICUs. The remote team is stationed around the clock in a “bunker,” from which they serve as the clinical resource for smaller hospitals. Moreover, with cameras in all rooms, the remote team can view and interact with patients and their nurses in this version of telehealth.

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While this is a common application of telehealth, the care delivery approach can also be as simple as a health system leveraging a mobile application that allows clinicians to collaborate remotely. Increasingly, the objective of telehealth is efficiency, with asynchronous workflows that are highly mobile as opposed to the traditional real-time, provider-to-patient encounter that relies on video or voice technology. In an asynchronous situation, nurses can use telehealth to communicate directly (although not simultaneously) with remote physicians for questions or consultations. This improves the quality and efficiency of patient care in an increasingly dynamic healthcare environment.

The Power of Telehealth

At a time when the aging population is increasing and chronic conditions are becoming more prevalent, the cost of care is also rising. Now more than ever, the healthcare industry needs to prioritize its activities using more cost-effective care delivery processes to streamline clinical workflows and improve patient outcomes. In addition to reducing costs, telehealth and remote monitoring will effectively extend nursing care to a larger and more diverse patient population, which is especially important for areas where clinical resources are limited. This ability to fill in gaps and provide direct care regardless of location means that telehealth can greatly benefit nurses, patients, and health systems.  These new capabilities will lead to the creation of a fresh round of telehealth jobs.

In rural areas, hospitals face two types of challenges at both the patient and caregiver levels. Nurses and clinicians in remote areas may be responsible for delivering general care to patients, while specialists are centralized in the nearest urban setting. Telehealth offers an alternative means of providing the best care possible should these nurses find themselves in situations in which they need a specialist’s assistance to assess and treat certain patients. For example, a pregnant woman might live more than an hour’s drive away from the obstetrician managing her high-risk pregnancy. Through leveraging telehealth, she can be monitored remotely from home with self-administered non-stress tests, obviating the need to travel hours to reach a clinic. This can reduce the unnecessary transporting of patients, an undertaking that can worsen their conditions and increase costs.

Despite the promise and widespread use of telehealth technology, health care leaders need solutions for a number of unique challenges. These challenges include protecting the privacy of patient information shared on mobile devices, ensuring the interoperability of mobile health technology with EHRs and other health technology, and determining which mHealth apps are safest and most effective.