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Telemedicine vs. Telehealth: What’s the difference?

Terri Phillips   |   Jun 10, 2021

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The terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” have been gaining popularity since before COVID-19 made remote medical services a priority. Over half of adults who’ve used telehealth in the past year intend to continue doing so post-pandemic. Virtual receptionists, teleconferencing software, and wearable tech are streamlining healthcare services for patients and doctors. But there is still confusion over what defines telehealth, what defines telemedicine, and what is the difference between telehealth and telemedicine.

Is a Fitbit smartwatch considered telehealth? Are remote medical appointments an example of telehealth, telemedicine, or both?

The short answer is telemedicine is telehealth. Telehealth is an umbrella term encompassing the use of telecommunications and other technologies to improve the healthcare of individuals. Telemedicine specifically refers to the use of remote technology to provide a healthcare service. Think: video appointments.

Those definitions leave a lot of room for overlap, so let’s look at the long answer:

man having a telemedicine consultation

What is telehealth?

Telehealth covers a wide range of services and devices that bridge the distance between individuals and their healthcare providers. These can be divided up into four categories:

  • Synchronous – Synchronous telehealth refers to any method allowing patients to communicate instantly with their healthcare provider. A video appointment or a web chat with an advice nurse fall under this category. 
  • Asynchronous – Also known as store-and-forward telehealth, this covers any process that collects a patient’s information, stores it on a cloud-based platform, and makes it accessible by a healthcare provider at a different location. For example, a medical answering service takes a patient’s message and sends it to a secure inbox to be retrieved by a physician.
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM) – RPM refers to the use of devices to remotely monitor a patient’s health. Physicians use these devices to track glucose levels, heart rate, blood pressure, weight loss or gain, and more. These devices update healthcare providers in real-time allowing them to respond quickly if needed.
  • mHealth – Also known as mobile health, mHealth is similar to remote patient monitoring. Patients can use wearable technology—such as Fitbits, iWatches, and heart rate monitors—to track their health. Smartphone apps and smart scales allowing patients to track sleep, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and much more fall into this category as well. However, the primary purpose of this data is promoting wellness, rather than keeping healthcare providers informed.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine vs telehealth: what is the difference? Telemedicine fits firmly into the synchronous category of telehealth by allowing healthcare providers to offer services in real-time. Healthcare providers and patients use software on a laptop, smartphone, tablet, or other device to communicate live as an alternative to an in-person visit. 

Making telemedicine and telehealth work for you

Incorporating telehealth or telemedicine into your practice requires secure, HIPAA-compliant software; broadband Internet access, staff training, and a range of devices. However, the benefits you and your patients will receive from telehealth make it well worth it.

  • Lower costs for you and your patients. Telehealth appointments require less overhead and cut down on no-shows. They’re also more affordable for patients. One study shows Oregon Health and Science University saved their patients $6.4 million in annual travel costs by implementing telemedicine.
  • Improve your clinic’s efficiency. With cloud-based data storage and real-time communication, telehealth can streamline updating patient records, triaging symptoms, and delivering care.
  • Give patients better access to care. Telemedicine is instrumental in helping rural or mobility-limited patients receive the care they deserve. In the study mentioned above, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that 40% of patients will skip making an appointment if a virtual visit isn’t an option.
  • Provide better patient education. Wearable tech, smartphone apps, and other mHealth or remote patient monitoring devices improve patient self-care. Easy health tracking and user-friendly interfaces assist patients in creating a wellness-focused lifestyle.

Telehealth isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and patients will expect their healthcare providers to offer telehealth in some form. Fortunately, the wide range of telehealth and telemedicine options ensure healthcare clinics can pick and choose the services that best fit their—and their patients’—needs.

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Terri Phillips

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