"Aging in place” has become much more than a buzz phrase: It’s a huge priority for today’s aging population and a key focus of many retirement communities. And thanks to telemedicine, it’s a trend more and more seniors may be able to embrace.
So what is telemedicine, or “telehealth”?
According to Medicaid.gov, telemedicine “seeks to improve a patient’s health by permitting two-way, real time interactive communication between the patient, and the physician or practitioner at the distant site.” In other words, through different types of remote technologies, patients can be monitored, evaluated, and yes, even treated by a medical professional—without setting foot in a doctor’s office. For older adults who live in rural areas or have mobility challenges, telemedicine offers a great alternative to schlepping back and forth to appointments.
But telemedicine’s benefits go beyond mere convenience. It aims to make health care better and more accessible while allowing retirees to maintain their independence. Here’s an example: Back in 2012, the largest senior residential community in the nation launched a major telehealth initiative to increase access to primary and specialty care through text chat, phone, and video.
The goal of the program is to help residents stay in their own homes versus long-term care settings and reduce hospital admissions, readmissions, and pharmacy costs (a real win-win scenario). At launch-time, other plans in the program included a home health aspect and biometric monitoring capabilities that allow patients to send high-definition photos to providers electronically.
Lutheran SeniorLife of Pennsylvania, which runs a network of senior living communities, is also using telehealth to keep seniors out of long-term care. In 2012, the nonprofit began having some elderly residents wear watch-like monitoring devices on their wrists. These devices work with an FDA-cleared system that alerts nurses’ aides via text message if the wearer falls. This enables faster intervention and helps prevent unnecessary ER trips that drive up costs for everyone. Since then, Lutheran SeniorLife has cut its percentage of nursing home transfers from 20 percent down to 12 percent.
In the Northeast, telehealth is reducing hospital readmissions for people with heart failure and other chronic conditions. Back in 2006, Partners HealthCare of Boston created a chronic disease telemonitoring and education program. Among the more than 1,200 patients who have been through the program, readmission rates for heart failure patients fell by half and non-heart failure readmissions rates fell by 44 percent.
Is telemedicine expensive to implement?
Sure, it can be. But experts say that the potential benefits—like better care coordination, faster response time, and less cost and time related to travel—far outweigh the costs of implementation. A recent study, which looked at the cost benefits of using telemedicine in several Massachusetts nursing homes, found that facilities committed to using telemedicine services saved an average of over $120,000 annually (even when factoring in the cost of the technology).
Imagine being able to turn on your iPad to talk face to face with your primary care provider (PCP) while sitting on your living room couch. Or scaling weekly on-site doctor’s appointments down to monthly video consults. If these opportunities aren’t available to you now, they may be in the future. All signs seem to indicate that telemedicine is going to transform senior health care as we know it and help more retirees enjoy the vibrant, independent lifestyle they crave.