Telehealth: The Benefits & The Risks

April 30th, 2019

In recent years, telehealth has been touted as a solution to many of our society’s medical problems. It has the potential to make health services more efficient and improve patient access. Despite these benefits, telehealth isn’t without its risks and challenges.

What Is Telehealth?

Telehealth is the practice of leveraging information technologies to deliver patient care and other health-related services. The term can be used broadly to include providing healthcare from a distance, health-related education, monitoring, intervention, communication and more.

Telehealth is often used interchangeably with telemedicine or eHealth, although some may argue that telemedicine is more focused on providing healthcare from a distance, and eHealth is more focused on electronic communication and processing.

In comparison, two medical practitioners discussing a case over a video call could fall under the umbrella of telehealth, even though it may not relate directly to the treatment of a patient.

telehealth risk

What Are the Benefits of Telehealth?

At its primary level, telehealth involves applying technology to enhance healthcare and its surrounding processes. Just as in most other sectors, our evolving technology can be used in numerous ways to improve treatment, outcomes, communication and efficiency.

One of the most obvious examples of the benefits of telehealth involves those who live in regional areas. In these cases, it may be either impossible or extremely costly for a patient to receive medical treatment from certain specialists.

Without telehealth, the only possibility would be for either the patient to travel to the medical practitioner, or for the healthcare specialist to go to them. Depending on how remote the patient is, this can be incredibly inefficient.

Advances in technology have completely changed the treatment prospects in these cases. As long as there is an adequate internet connection, healthcare specialists may be able to monitor their patient, give advice, diagnose them or even provide treatment without leaving their offices.

This increases healthcare access and makes the whole process much more efficient. If healthcare professionals don’t need to account for travel time between clients, they can see far more patients each day, easing the burden on the healthcare system and essentially making treatment cheaper.

On top of this, telehealth can help to promote healthcare education, disease prevention and more. It can also increase access and reduce costs in each of these aspects.

What Risks Are Involved in Telehealth?

While telehealth opens up a world of opportunities in medical care, it is not without its challenges and it should not be implemented without adequate planning. We will mainly discuss the technical, privacy and security challenges, although there can be other issues, such as reduced quality of care in certain situations.

One of the primary requirements for telehealth is a stable and reliable connection. If the network infrastructure is inadequate, it could limit the quality of care that a patient receives, or even endanger them. In cases where internet connections are poor, traditional medicine should be used instead.

On top of this, there is the issue of consent. Should the patient be required to give it before any telehealth practices begin? The technology-based nature of telehealth involves numerous complications that simply don’t exist in face-to-face healthcare. Since technology links the two parties together, there are a range of privacy and security issues which patients need to be aware of.

Telehealth & Privacy

Let’s look at an example of a potential privacy issue. Patients with certain conditions may have in-home monitoring technology to detect falls or other health-related incidents. The issue is that these technologies, whether they be cameras or sensors, will also detect information which the patient may not want exposed.

This could include when their home is unoccupied, or it could even reveal things about their intimate relationships, drug abuse or other private matters. This leads into our next issue, telehealth and its security.

Telehealth & Security

By its very nature, telehealth involves collecting, processing, transmitting and storing data which would normally not be a part of traditional medicine. As we mentioned above, this information can be problematic, even when it is only in the hands of authorized personnel such as healthcare professionals.

But what happens if this data falls into the hands of attackers?

Healthcare information is some of the most valuable of all, because it tends to be comprehensive and can also include sensitive details. For this reason, it is important for any applications of telehealth to use appropriate security measures. These include encryption both in transit and at rest, authentication and access control.

Telehealth Is Still in a Regulatory Gray Area

Since telehealth is yet to be widely used, our laws haven’t had a chance to catch up with it. The best guidance probably comes from HIPAA, although these laws are intentionally vague to allow organizations to implement security in a way that is most suitable for the situation. Because of this, businesses should err on the safe side whenever they use telehealth.

Should Your Organization Use Telehealth?

When deciding on whether your organization should use telehealth, the first step is to determine whether it will actually be beneficial. Will it improve patient outcomes or increase efficiency within your organization?

If you can foresee definite benefits, then you should take the time to examine how it would be applied and secured. Due to the risks involved in telehealth, it’s important to take the appropriate planning steps and make sure that adequate security measures are in place.

Rushing into telehealth without taking the time to examine its repercussions could lead to data breaches, HIPAA violations, or even lower health outcomes for your patients.

If you are interested in pursuing telehealth at your organization, contact LuxSci first. We have almost two decades of experience in healthcare security, so we can help your business get the most out of telehealth, without being trapped by its numerous pitfalls.

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