Fall 2020 Newsletter
By Alicia S. Landry, PhD, RD, SDN, SNS
Family and Consumer Sciences
University of Central Arkansas
Telehealth is an umbrella term that often refers to healthcare services that are delivered virtually. Examples of telehealth are telemedicine, mHealth (mobile health), and store and forward. In order to lay some groundwork, we will start with brief definitions.
- Telemedicine is two-way, synchronous discussion between a patient and a healthcare provider, or between multiple providers.
- Mobile health is when a patient uses an application or software to manage health. An example would be tracking dietary intake using a food log app on a smartphone and syncing it with the platform a registered dietitian monitors to give the patient feedback on diet choices.
- Store and forward includes gathering patient data (like photos of a rash or an x-ray) and using the information for diagnostic decisions made by a provider at a later time.
Using accurate terminology to describe telehealth interventions becomes important when multiple providers are providing care for a single patient as well as other situations. Having a healthcare team in sync with one another is critical to positive patient outcomes.
While telehealth could potentially result in healthcare savings as well as increased safety and convenience for aging adults as well as their providers (Snoswell, Taylor, and Caffrey, 2019), concerns remain about the feasibility of telehealth use in a geriatric population. Specialties such as psychiatry and counseling, physical and occupational therapy, and medical nutrition therapy have been positively impacted by the use of telehealth and should continue to grow as demands for specialists increase and the safety of going to practitioner offices remains in question. For most Medicare patients, virtual doctor visits are covered when a doctor is not available to see the patient in person and Medicare has expanded coverage for virtual visits in the wake of COVID-19 (Medicare, 2020).
Patient acceptance, insurance reimbursement, regulatory or licensure barriers, access to high-speed broadband or wireless networks, and privacy concerns are legitimate obstacles to implementing telehealth. In Arkansas, broadband access is very poor (41st in the US), making network infrastructure in rural areas somewhat prohibitive of the use of telehealth. The Arkansas Rural Connect program is expected to use $25 million to cover underserved and rural communities, and more recently, there have been expanded efforts to make wireless and broadband coverage available in rural areas. While 26% of adults over 60 years of age reported no access to the internet, only half of 45-59-year-olds reported no access (Arkansas Broadband Report, 2019) which means age gaps do occur in the access to high-speed internet as well as in the utilization of telehealth. As always, healthcare providers communicating with senior adults must recognize challenges in hearing, sight, technology access, as well as others to ensure the best care possible.
Patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity show favorable responses to home management via telehealth when led by an interprofessional team of healthcare providers. If it is possible that telehealth can allow seniors to remain safely at home for a longer time, ensure older adults are compliant with medication use, and reinforce support of caregivers, it may be time to take a deeper look into the possibilities for allied health professionals to grow the telehealth outlet.
During this time of physical distancing, older adults are more likely to feel socially isolated, experience food insecurity, and delay routine healthcare. In the National Poll on Healthy Aging, 45% of respondents said the pandemic made them more interested in telehealth and only 25% reported being concerned they would have difficulty seeing or hearing the provider during a video visit (Buis et al., 2020). Reduced risk of falls or decreased exposure to disease benefits the frail elderly, and telehealth can allow resource providers to maintain closer contact with older adults. In-home caregivers who may have their own families or other jobs can connect with healthcare providers which may reduce stress and improve the quality of care. Mobility (address movement and physical activity), mentation (assess cognition level), medication (identify the type, dose, supply), and what matters (determine goals, preferences, priorities) are the four M’s of age-friendly health and remembering these for telehealth visits can make these visits even more successful for the aged (Institute for Healthcare Improvement, 2019).
For registered dietitians, the expanding telehealth world has been a phenomenal way to provide integrated and patient-centered care, even with guidelines about physical distancing and preventing the spread of infectious disease. For example, a registered dietitian observing mealtimes with speech pathologists and occupational therapists allows the interprofessional team to make decisions about food consistency, swallowing risk, socialization, and other issues impacting nutrition status. For patients with at-home parenteral nutrition, registered dietitian observation along with pharmacy and medical providers reduces the risk of bloodstream infections and hospital readmission (Raphael et al., 2019). In diabetes self-management education (DSME), registered dietitians are able to teach blood glucose monitoring and follow patients in real-time as they report their blood glucose levels. Telehealth DSME has had great success and shown significant reductions in hemoglobin A1c and blood pressure in patients with diabetes (Nicoll et al., 2014). Group therapy or support groups with counselors, registered dietitians, and social workers may help alleviate distress and loneliness of isolation. The use of multidisciplinary clinics has been shown to improve outcomes in aging adults (Erskine, Griffith, & Degroat, 2013; Kozak et al., 2017) and implementing telehealth in these clinics makes scheduling less burdensome. Dietitians across the State are utilizing telehealth for DSME and dietetic interns are learning multiple telehealth platforms in order to be better equipped as they enter the dietetics profession.
During the spring of 2020, multiple hospitals and primary care provider clinics closed and only allowed medically necessary procedures. These restrictions affected dietetics education because students were no longer allowed in hospitals like during traditional internships. Turning to telehealth and working alongside registered dietitians – even at a distance – to monitor and educate patients allowed students to continue their education and graduate on time. Likewise, these opportunities often included exposure to interprofessional teams of pharmacists, physicians, and other therapists which may not have been accessible during typical rotations. Taking advantage of these technologies gave students an opportunity to participate in ground-breaking healthcare as well as provided them with the confidence to interact in a healthcare team. While we must still train healthcare professionals to have bedside manner and we need to ensure students are competent in clinical skills, considering telehealth as a significant portion of their educational experience is worthwhile.
- Arkansas Department of Commerce. (2019). Arkansas State Broadband Manager’s Report. Available at: https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Calendars/Attachment?committee=685&agenda=3195&file=Exhibit%20F%20Arkansas%20State%20Broadband%20Manager%20Report.pdf
- Buis, L., Singer, D., Solway, E., Kirch, M., Kullgren, J., & Malani, P. (2020). Telehealth use among older adults before and during COVID-19. University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. August 2020. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/15625
- Erskine, K. E., Griffith, E., & Degroat, N. (2013). An interdisciplinary approach to personalized medicine: Case studies from a cardiogenetics clinic. Personalized Medicine, 10(1), 73–80.
- Institute for Healthcare Improvement. (2019). “What Matters” to older adults? A toolkit for health systems to design better care with older adults. Retrieved from: http://www.ihi.org/Engage/Initiatives/Age-Friendly-Health-Systems/Documents/IHI_Age_Friendly_What_Matters_to_Older_Adults_Toolkit.pdf
- Kozak, V. N., Khorana, A. A., Amarnath, S., Glass, K. E., & Kalady, M. F. (2017). Multidisciplinary clinics for colorectal cancer care reduces treatment time. Clinical Colorectal Cancer, 16(4), 366–371.
- Medicare. (2020). Available at: https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/telehealth
- Nicoll, K. G., Ramser, K. L., Campbell, J. D., et al. (2014). Sustainability of improved glycemic control after diabetes self-management education. Diabetes Spectrum, 27(3), 207-211.
- Raphael, B.P., Schumann, C., & Garrity-Gentille, S. (2019). Virtual telemedicine visits in pediatric home parenteral nutrition patients: A quality improvement initiative. Telemedicine Journal and E-health, 25(1), 60–65.
- Snoswell, C. L., Taylor, M. L., & Caffery, L. J. (2019). The breakeven point for implementing telehealth. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 25(9), 530-536. doi: 10.1177/1357633X19871403.