Over the past ten years or so, telemedicine has grown from a minor aspect of medical services to an integral part of modern healthcare. With the advent of new technologies and video calling becoming more commonplace, not to mention the measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic that placed significant limitations on in-person visits, virtual consultations and digital communication have become widely accepted as a potential form of care by patients and medical staff alike.
But how does this development affect older people, who are often believed to be less comfortable with using new technologies? In this article, we look at how telemedicine works in both primary and acute care, why it is so important, and why it can be hugely beneficial for the elderly in particular. In addition, we also examine how education in healthcare today is equipping the next generation of healthcare professionals to successfully use telemedicine to assist their patients.
Facilitating the highest level of care
Telemedicine refers to the use of digital communication and information technologies to provide and support healthcare, usually remotely. Though it is used in all areas of medicine and for many different reasons, the main areas of application typically include providing virtual visits or consultations for patients, enabling patients to register in the health management system and book appointments, and providing a range of monitoring tools.
Telemedicine can be particularly important when providing primary healthcare. Although physical examinations and treatment are often necessary, in many cases, the emphasis is more on regular monitoring or fast response. There are also many instances where it may be preferable for the patient to receive a virtual visit, where they can receive care and potential further treatment more easily and effectively than with an in-person visit.
The safer and more convenient option
In many cases, a virtual visit can serve as an excellent initial point of contact, with the option for an in-person examination if the situation requires it. If, for example, an elderly, infirm patient is experiencing symptoms of the flu or a similar illness that may require treatment, it might make more sense to speak to the doctor or family nurse practitioner via video call initially. Not only might this be a more convenient option for the patient, who does not have to make a trip to the medical clinic when they would likely benefit more from bedrest, which is a typical reason for putting off making an appointment, but it also significantly reduces the chances of infection for everyone involved.
Similarly, if an elderly patient suffers from a chronic condition, such as diabetes, back pain, vascular disease or heart disease, it is arguably sometimes more important to receive regular check-ups and consultations than to physically meet. Although, of course, each patient must first learn how to use the system and understand how it works, once they are familiar and comfortable with this form of communication, they often find that it is much easier than attending the clinic in person. This is particularly true if there are any impediments to their mobility, whether physical or material, which is increasingly likely as we get older.
Improving access to healthcare
In fact, it is this flexibility that is arguably the greatest asset of telemedicine when it comes to assisting the elderly. Because telemedicine is more easily accessible, patients with chronic conditions will often be more willing to make and keep appointments. Similarly, the fact that prescriptions can, in many cases, be stored in the cloud or sent directly to the patient’s pharmacy for filling also means that patients are more easily able to access the medication they need.
In turn, because greater access usually leads to more frequent contact, telemedicine can also help older patients build a better connection with their physician or nurse practitioner. In addition to video calls, they may also benefit from using additional forms of communication, such as email or messaging, which enables them to check information and request help without placing undue pressure on medical staff. Health professionals can use these channels to offer emotional support and advice and provide important information to their patients.
Telemedicine can also play a vital role in acute care. If, for example, a patient is believed to be suffering from a life-threatening emergency, but it is not possible to reach a hospital easily, the nurse practitioner or other local health professional may choose to consult with a specialist remotely in order to ensure the patient can receive the right treatment as quickly as possible.
The importance of education
Fortunately, most health education institutions have reacted strongly to the increased importance of providing virtual care, and telemedicine is now a key part of the curriculum at many universities, particularly for family nurse practitioners (FNPs). With programs such as the Rockhurst University online post-master’s FNP, prospective family nurse practitioners have the opportunity to explore all aspects of telemedicine and how they are typically applied in modern practice.
With 100% online coursework, graduates also emerge with a sophisticated understanding of advanced nursing practices, evidence-based decision-making, and leadership skills in the fields of organization, systems, and policies. In addition, the online nature of this kind of course helps students become even more familiar and comfortable in digital settings, a factor that is sure to benefit them in their later careers.
Technology is key
Particularly in the field of technology, continued learning will play an important role for health professionals for the duration of their careers, not only in terms of understanding the possibilities, limitations, and benefits of technology themselves but also in educating their patients in this arena. For this reason, an open mind is essential, particularly with older patients. It is also important to acknowledge that today, many older people have a good or even excellent grasp of technology and may be more than happy to use it.
Indeed, as time passes, the number of older people who are familiar with digital tools will increase, and telemedicine will almost certainly become even more frequently used and popular with elderly patients in the future. There is no question that health professionals should take the time to master these tools and ensure they are applied in a way that increases the overall level of care.