Imagine if a senior could receive prompt, high-quality health care at any time, without even leaving their home. Telemedicine, or telehealth, makes this possible.

The American Telemedicine Association defines this unique approach to healthcare as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.” Once a novelty, this progressive care delivery model is gaining momentum as a means for lowering costs while also improving health care outcomes. In fact, 52 percent of hospitals now use telehealth with their patients in a variety of formats, ranging from phone and video conferencing to remote monitoring.1 In remote monitoring, high-tech sensors, health and activity monitors, touch-screen technology and secure websites are being used to automatically record and share vitals and physiological data, such as blood pressure, glucose levels, weight and activity levels, with medical professionals.

“Having a feed of information that tracks vitals over time is much more comprehensive than the snapshot assessment that’s obtained during an in-office doctor’s visit,” says Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), a non-profit organization that advocates for the development and adoption of new technologies to improve the aging experience. “Doctors can prescribe appropriate treatments and interventions, as well as detect the early onset of disease, without patients even leaving their homes.”

With today’s rapidly aging population and an increased prevalence of chronic diseases, seniors have become a key target for these services. Benefits include prolonged independence, easier access to care, and fewer headaches related to traveling to and from on-site visits. “Seniors are more likely to comply with a doctor’s orders when they can follow them in the comfort of their own homes with minimal effort involved,” Dr. Alwan notes. All of these factors can contribute to improved health and a better quality of life for both patients and their caregivers.

Telemedicine Can Help Keep Seniors at Home and Reduce Health Care Costs

Keeping elderly patients comfortable, happy and healthy at home, instead of in a medical facility, has major financial implications as well. With telehealth technology, seniors can be evaluated and even treated remotely, eliminating unnecessary (and costly) office and emergency room (ER) visits that can wreak havoc on a senior’s overall mental and physical health. Physicians can spot early warning signs associated with worsening chronic conditions and the onset of new ones, allowing for early intervention and reducing the chance of hospital admission and readmission.2 Below are some examples of the cost-mitigating impact of this practice.

  • One study found that the expense of implementing telemedicine programs in nursing homes could be offset by a reduction in costs related to transferring residents to and from emergency rooms and physicians’ offices. For example, the use of hybrid telehealth technologies could eliminate as many as 387,000 transports to ERs annually, resulting in a cost savings of $327 million. This technology could also eliminate 6.87 million transports to on-site physician’s office visits, yielding a cost savings of $479 million.3
  • A nonprofit organization that runs senior living communities in Pennsylvania was able to reduce the percentage of patients moving into nursing homes from 20 percent to 12 percent by having frail seniors wear monitoring devices that alert nurses to a fall.4 Although there is an investment involved in implementing such a system, the cost pales in comparison to the expense of transitioning seniors into skilled nursing facilities.
  • A chain of skilled nursing homes in Illinois is using telemedicine to reduce potentially avoidable hospitalizations (PAH), costly incidents that expose elderly patients to additional health risks while causing stress for patients and families. Through this program, which involves using two-way video communication to enable bedside evaluation by board-certified physicians, approximately 81 percent of patients using the technology can be treated on site rather than hospitalized.5 This has the potential to save the health system hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by minimizing readmissions and eliminating unnecessary emergency department visits.
  • In North Carolina, telemedicine is helping aging adults remain in their homes by decreasing hospitalization rates related to heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes. Patients with these diagnoses were monitored by telehealth technologies at home in between home health care visits. Both response and intervention times increased dramatically as well.6

Vital Support for Caregivers

For caregivers who commit time and money to caring for an aging loved one, telemedicine can be a valuable lifeline. From a merely practical standpoint, it helps ease the burden of traveling for provider visits. Caregivers with full-time jobs can avoid taking excessive time off work to chauffeur a senior to appointments. Moreover, these services empower family members by giving them more opportunities to ask questions and take a proactive role in their loved ones’ care and recovery.

  • One study found that the use of telehealth care in conjunction with discharge planning can help reduce strain on family caregivers, enhance stress mastery and improve family function during the first 30 days after a heart failure patient is discharged from the hospital.7
  • At the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Illinois, telemedicine offers support for people caring for loved ones with chronic diseases.8 Medical monitoring services allow for the transmission and review of critical patient information, thereby reducing the number of in-person visits needed. Caregivers can also receive direct, personalized guidance from a registered nurse when they need it, rather than having to wait for in-office visits to speak to a professional.

The Future of Telehealth Services

This industry still faces several challenges, including legal and regulatory issues, privacy and confidentiality, as well as reimbursement protocols. However, for seniors and those involved in their care, the future appears bright.

In 2015, Medicare extended beneficiary coverage (under Medicare Part B) to telehealth services, including annual wellness visits and mental health services.9 The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) also uses telemedicine to monitor and treat older veterans who have limited mobility and/or chronic illnesses that make it difficult or impossible for them to leave home for medical appointments. These services can also prevent or delay an older veteran’s placement in a skilled nursing facility.

We can expect this progress to continue as new technologies are created and adopted that help patients and medical professionals reduce costs and improve access to care. Ask your loved one’s health care providers if they offer any technological solutions that may improve data collection, communication between providers or ease of access to consultations and treatment.

1. American Hospital Association. The Promise of Telehealth for Hospitals, Health Systems and Their Communities. Trendwatch. January 2015. 2. Reduce the Chance of Hospital Readmissions (https://mha.gwu.edu/blog/telemedicine-reduce-hospital-readmissions/) 3. Telemedicine Programs Reduce ER Costs (http://www.americantelemed.org/docs/default-source/policy/examples-of-research-outcomes---telemedicine's-impact-on-healthcare-cost-and-quality.pdf) 4. Reduction in Nursing Home Placement (http://www.cnbc.com/2014/01/13/telemedicine-keeps-seniors-out-of-nursing-homes.html) 5. Reduction in PAHs (http://healthjournalism.org/blog/2015/08/how-nursing-facilities-use-telemedicine-to-reduce-hospital-readmissions/) 6. Decrease in Hospitalizations (https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/topics/telehealth) 7. Reduce Strain on Caregivers (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22633448) 8. Support for Caregivers Medicare Telehealth Coverage (http://www.americantelemed.org/news-landing/2014/11/07/update-on-cms-payment-decisions---two-steps-forward-one-back#.Vz23NPkrJaR)