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Virtual Care vs Telehealth: Understanding the Distinctions

Advancements in technology have revolutionized the way healthcare services are delivered, particularly in the field of remote medical care. Two terms that often come up in this context are "virtual care" and "telehealth." While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually have distinct meanings and implications. Understanding the difference between virtual care and telehealth is crucial for both healthcare providers and patients who want to get the most out of this form of care delivery. 

Defining Virtual Care: What It Is and What It Offers

Virtual care is a broad term that encompasses various healthcare services provided remotely through digital communication tools. It refers to the delivery of healthcare services, including consultations, assessments, monitoring, and even treatments, using technology such as video calls, messaging platforms, and mobile applications. Virtual care aims to bridge the gap between patients and healthcare professionals, enabling access to quality care from the comfort of one's home or any location with an internet connection.

Types of virtual care services

Virtual care encompasses a wide range of healthcare services delivered remotely. Some of the common types of virtual care services include:

  1. Virtual Consultations: These are remote appointments where patients can connect with healthcare providers via video calls or teleconferencing platforms to discuss their symptoms, receive medical advice, and seek treatment recommendations.
  2. Remote Monitoring: Virtual care enables healthcare providers to remotely monitor patients' vital signs, chronic conditions, or post-operative recovery progress using wearable devices, sensors, or mobile applications. This allows for proactive interventions and timely adjustments to treatment plans.
  3. Digital Health Platforms: Online platforms and mobile applications provide patients with access to educational resources, personalized health information, self-assessment tools, and symptom checkers. These platforms empower patients to actively engage in their healthcare management and make informed decisions.
  4. E-Prescriptions: Virtual care services often include the ability to issue electronic prescriptions, eliminating the need for in-person visits to obtain medication. Healthcare providers can send prescriptions directly to pharmacies, improving convenience and accessibility for patients.
  5. Mental Health Support: Virtual care has been instrumental in expanding access to mental health services. Through video therapy sessions, online counseling platforms, and mental health apps, individuals can receive counseling, therapy, and support from licensed professionals remotely.

Benefits of Virtual Care

Virtual care offers numerous advantages for both patients and healthcare providers:

  1. Improved Accessibility: Virtual care breaks down geographical barriers, ensuring that patients, regardless of their location, can access quality healthcare services. It is particularly beneficial for individuals residing in remote areas or those with limited mobility.
  2. Enhanced Convenience: Patients can schedule virtual appointments at their convenience, reducing the need to take time off work or arrange transportation. It eliminates the hassle of traveling and waiting rooms, providing a more streamlined and efficient healthcare experience.
  3. Cost-Effectiveness: Virtual care can be more cost-effective for both patients and healthcare systems. It reduces transportation expenses, eliminates the need for physical infrastructure maintenance, and may help prevent costly emergency department visits and hospital readmissions through timely interventions and remote monitoring.
  4. Continuity of Care: Virtual care facilitates continuous monitoring and follow-up care for patients, particularly those with chronic conditions. Healthcare providers can track patients' progress remotely, make necessary adjustments to treatment plans, and provide ongoing support.
  5. Improved Health Outcomes: By increasing patient engagement and empowerment, virtual care can lead to improved health outcomes. Patients have access to resources, educational materials, and tools to manage their health effectively. Additionally, remote monitoring and timely interventions can prevent complications and enhance overall well-being.

Examples of Virtual Care Technologies

Virtual care relies on various technologies to deliver remote healthcare services. Some examples include:

  1. Video Conferencing Platforms: Technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or WebEx enable real-time video consultations between healthcare providers and patients. They provide a secure and convenient medium for virtual appointments, allowing for face-to-face interactions.
  2. Remote Monitoring Devices: Wearable devices such as fitness trackers, smartwatches, or specialized medical devices collect patient data, including heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels, or sleep patterns. These devices transmit data to healthcare providers for monitoring and analysis.
  3. Mobile Applications: Numerous healthcare apps allow patients to access virtual consultations, receive medication reminders, track their symptoms, or access educational materials. These apps enable continuous communication between patients and healthcare providers.
  4. Electronic Health Records (EHR): EHR systems store patients' medical records electronically, facilitating seamless sharing of information between healthcare providers. They provide a centralized repository for patient data, ensuring continuity of care across different virtual care encounters.
  5. AI-Powered Chatbots: Virtual assistants and chatbots powered by artificial intelligence provide patients with instant responses to their healthcare queries. These chatbots can assist with triaging, provide basic medical information

Defining Telehealth: What It Means and How It Works

Telehealth, on the other hand, is a subset of virtual care. It specifically refers to the use of technology to provide healthcare services remotely. Telehealth primarily focuses on clinical services, such as diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients. It involves real-time interaction between healthcare providers and patients through video conferencing or phone calls. Telehealth often involves the use of specialized medical devices that allow healthcare providers to gather essential patient data, such as blood pressure, heart rate, or glucose levels, from a distance.

Types of Telehealth Services

Telehealth encompasses a variety of remote healthcare services that focus specifically on clinical care delivery. Here are some common types of telehealth services:

  1. Telemedicine Consultations: Telemedicine involves real-time video consultations between healthcare providers and patients, allowing for the diagnosis, treatment, and management of various medical conditions. It enables patients to receive expert medical advice without the need for in-person visits.
  2. Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM): Remote patient monitoring utilizes medical devices and technology to collect and transmit patient data, such as vital signs, blood glucose levels, or electrocardiograms, from the patient's location to healthcare providers. This allows for ongoing monitoring of patients with chronic illnesses or those recovering from surgery.
  3. Store-and-Forward: Store-and-forward telehealth involves the secure transmission of patient data, such as medical images, laboratory test results, or electronic health records, from one healthcare provider to another for review and consultation. It enables specialists to provide expert opinions and recommendations without direct patient interaction.
  4. Telepsychiatry: Telepsychiatry delivers mental health services remotely, including psychiatric evaluations, therapy sessions, and medication management. It provides access to mental health professionals, particularly for individuals in underserved areas or those with limited mobility.
  5. Telestroke: Telestroke services connect healthcare providers in emergency departments with stroke specialists remotely. Through video consultations and image sharing, specialists can quickly assess patients experiencing stroke symptoms and guide local healthcare teams in delivering time-sensitive interventions.

Virtual Care vs. Telehealth Differences

While telehealth and virtual care are related concepts, they have some key differences:

  1. Scope: Telehealth primarily focuses on clinical care delivery and involves real-time interactions between healthcare providers and patients. It encompasses services like telemedicine consultations and remote patient monitoring. Virtual care, on the other hand, is a broader term that includes both clinical and non-clinical remote healthcare services, such as digital health platforms and non-clinical consultations.
  2. Technology Usage: Telehealth heavily relies on video conferencing, audio calls, and remote monitoring devices to facilitate direct patient-provider interactions. It often involves specialized medical equipment and devices for data collection and transmission. Virtual care, on the other hand, encompasses a wider range of technologies, including messaging platforms, mobile applications, and AI-powered chatbots, to deliver healthcare services remotely.
  3. Emphasis: Telehealth places a stronger emphasis on clinical care, diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of medical conditions. It is typically used for specific healthcare needs that require direct medical attention. Virtual care, while including clinical care, also focuses on promoting patient engagement, self-care, and access to non-clinical healthcare resources and information.

The Benefits of Telehealth

Telehealth offers numerous benefits for patients, healthcare providers, and the healthcare system as a whole:

  1. Improved Access: Telehealth eliminates geographical barriers, providing access to healthcare services for individuals in remote or underserved areas. It ensures that patients can receive timely medical care, especially in areas with a shortage of healthcare providers or specialty services.
  2. Convenience and Efficiency: Telehealth eliminates the need for patients to travel long distances or spend significant time waiting for in-person appointments. It offers flexibility in scheduling and reduces the time and effort associated with traditional healthcare visits. Healthcare providers can also see more patients within a given timeframe, improving overall efficiency.
  3. Cost Savings: Telehealth can result in cost savings for both patients and healthcare systems. It reduces transportation expenses for patients and eliminates the need for some infrastructure costs associated with physical healthcare facilities. Additionally, telehealth can help avoid unnecessary emergency department visits or hospital admissions, leading to potential cost savings for the healthcare system.
  4. Continuity of Care: Telehealth enables continuous monitoring and follow-up care, particularly for patients with chronic conditions. 

Examples of Telehealth Technologies

There are several examples of telehealth technologies that enable remote healthcare delivery. Here are some commonly used telehealth technologies:

  1. Video Conferencing Platforms: Technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, or provide secure and HIPAA-compliant video conferencing capabilities. These platforms allow healthcare providers and patients to have real-time face-to-face interactions during telemedicine consultations.
  2. Remote Monitoring Devices: Various medical devices enable remote monitoring of patients' vital signs, chronic conditions, or post-operative recovery. Examples include wearable devices like heart rate monitors, blood pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, pulse oximeters, and home spirometers. These devices collect data that can be transmitted to healthcare providers for review and analysis.
  3. Mobile Applications: Numerous mobile applications are designed specifically for telehealth purposes. These apps allow patients to schedule virtual appointments, receive medication reminders, track symptoms, and communicate with healthcare providers through secure messaging. 
  4. Electronic Health Records (EHR) Systems: EHR systems play a critical role in telehealth by facilitating the secure storage and exchange of patient health information. They enable healthcare providers to access patient records, review medical history, and document telehealth encounters. 
  5. Store-and-Forward Platforms: Store-and-forward telehealth platforms allow healthcare providers to securely transmit patient data, such as medical images, lab results, or clinical notes, to specialists for review and consultation. This technology is particularly useful in specialties like radiology or dermatology. 
  6. Remote Diagnostic Tools: Telehealth also utilizes remote diagnostic tools that enable patients to perform certain tests or exams at home under healthcare providers' guidance. Examples include home blood pressure monitors, digital stethoscopes, otoscopes, or dermatoscopes that can capture and transmit high-quality images for remote assessment.
  7. Artificial Intelligence (AI) Applications: AI technologies are increasingly being used in telehealth to aid in diagnostic decision-making, triage, and data analysis. AI-powered chatbots or virtual assistants can provide preliminary assessments, answer common health questions, and direct patients to appropriate resources or healthcare professionals.

Choosing Between Virtual Care and Telehealth for Your Healthcare Needs

What are some of the key differences between virtual care and telehealth? Virtual care encompasses a broader range of healthcare services, including both clinical and non-clinical interactions. It can involve various levels of patient interaction, from self-care resources and educational materials to asynchronous messaging or video consultations. Telehealth, on the other hand, specifically focuses on clinical care delivery and typically involves real-time interactions between healthcare providers and patients, such as video consultations or remote monitoring.

Virtual care and telehealth have become integral components of healthcare delivery, with a promising future ahead. As technology continues to advance and healthcare systems evolve, these remote care solutions are expected to play crucial roles in a number of ways. 

Virtual care and telehealth are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary in the broader context of healthcare delivery. By leveraging both approaches, healthcare systems can provide comprehensive and patient-centered care. 

Learn more about telehealth software and its integration with Elation’s EHR.  Elation offers telehealth solutions that seamlessly integrate with their electronic health record platform, providing a comprehensive and efficient telehealth experience for healthcare providers and their patients.