From waiting room to living room — how telehealth is giving caregivers a helping hand.
Caregivers have their hands full, trying to care for their loved ones’ needs as well as their own. They might have to take their mother to a doctor’s appointment and then run the kids to soccer practice, or help mom bathe and then coordinate her home healthcare workers’ schedules for the week, all while holding down a full-time job.
The number of people in the United States who manage these demands is staggering, with 43.5 million Americans, or almost 15% of the population, providing care for a loved one, according to a 2015 AARP report.
The same report also found:
- 60% of caregivers must handle complex medical tasks, such as giving injections, with the majority having received no medical training.
- 22% of caregivers cited their own health had become worse during the time they had been caregiving.
Anything that provides assistance can be a welcome relief, and telemedicine has increasingly become a popular method of support.
Most are somewhat familiar with the idea of scheduling virtual doctor’s visits for minor ailments, such as allergies or an earache. But the use of technology to replace traditional in-person appointments is growing, and caregivers are finding multiple ways of benefiting.
Teladoc, the largest telehealth provider, recently worked with AARP to launch a service for caregivers to access urgent care services for themselves or the person they are caring for, as long as they have legal authorization to act on their loved one’s behalf. At any time, board-certified physicians are accessible by phone, videoconferencing or mobile app, with three-way visits with the physician, caregiver and patient also possible.
Because many caregivers work outside the home, access to virtual visits can reduce absenteeism and boost productivity in the workplace, says Jason Gorevic, Teladoc’s president and CEO.
In addition to remote urgent care services, some hospitals offer virtual visits for follow-up care. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, offers telemedicine visits to patients with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes. The technology can cut down on trips to the doctor while still allowing the physician to monitor a patient’s condition closely, with the goal of reducing the number of emergency room visits and hospital stays.
George Demiris, a professor specialized in nursing and informatics at the University of Washington, has studied the successful use of telemedicine by caregivers.
“Telehealth allows caregivers to get a better idea of how their loved one is doing,” Demiris says. If a caregiver is afraid their loved one needs to go to the emergency room for treatment, “telehealth allows the caregiver to get a more informed assessment with a clinician.”
It also can be used to assist caregivers who must handle complex medical tasks, such as dealing with catheters or giving injections. The AARP’s report found the majority of caregivers who handle these tasks had received no medical training. With videoconferencing, a medical professional can demonstrate how to properly perform such tasks, Demiris says.
Virtual visits are expanding into areas beyond traditional medical services as well. For example, some providers are focusing on behavioral health, providing caregivers with resources for their own well-being.
Videoconferencing can be particularly valuable to help assess how a caregiver is coping with his or her situation, Demiris says. A doctor or nurse can focus on the caregiver’s non-verbal communication, or see if the caregiver looks tired or is crying.
Finally, various websites and mobile apps can play a larger role in aiding caregivers.
Caring Bridge, for example, allows loved ones to create a personal website for the patient, sharing health information and their own personal needs with family and friends.
Similarly, Lotsa Helping Hands allows caregivers to organize a calendar and post requests for support – such as meals for the family or transportation to doctor appointments.
Other sites, such as eCareDiary, offer a bit of both, as caregivers can create an online diary, store important medical records and share the information with other family members and friends.
As for the future?
Tavis McCourt, a technology research analyst for Raymond James, predicts wearable devices will become increasingly important for telemedicine. Already, fitness trackers are monitoring the heart rates and sleep patterns of many casual adopters of the technology.
But devices that are currently in development will provide better information, such as whether a person’s blood pressure has dropped or if they have heart arrhythmia, McCourt says. He expects such devices will become available for the consumer market in a couple of years, while those aimed at medical usage may take longer to roll out because they require U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.
McCourt also expects more usage of in-home cameras to provide remote monitoring when caregivers are away. Currently, most cameras and sensors are used for security purposes, but he expects a greater adoption by caregivers. For example, when home accidents such as falls occur, a caregiver can be alerted to the problem, no matter where they are at the time.
Despite the rapid technological innovations – and the fact that nearly three-quarters of Americans have a broadband Internet connection – limitations with telehealth remain. Not all homes have adequate Internet bandwidth, and some caregivers and their patients might be uncomfortable using technology, Demiris says.
“Telehealth should not be meant to replace traditional care, but to enhance it,” he says.
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