Managing Your Practice

The clear and present future: Telehealth and telemedicine in obstetrics and gynecology

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Telecommunications technology spans distances and crosses borders to bring health care services to rural and underserved communities and clinics within the United States. ACOG telehealth task force leaders explore how the technology might be applied in routine as well as specialized ObGyn care.


 

I recently spoke with 2 outstanding leaders in our field, members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) task force on telehealth and telemedicine, about the future of providing health care to women in remote locations.

Haywood Brown, MD, is President of ACOG for 2017–2018 and is F. Bayard Carter Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and Peter Nielsen, MD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and Obstetrician-in-Chief at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Dr. Nielsen is a retired US Army colonel.

Why an ACOG telehealth task force?

Haywood Brown, MD: Our overall goals in telehealth and telemedicine are to coordinate and better facilitate the health care of women in remote locations and to improve maternal morbidity and mortality. Telehealth can be used on both an outpatient and an inpatient basis.

Outpatient telehealth is used for consultations. In maternal-fetal medicine, for instance, we use it for ultrasonography consultations. I also have used telehealth technology to “see” a pregnant patient with type 1diabetes. During our sessions, I managed her blood sugar levels and did all the other things I would have done if we had been together at my clinic. Without telehealth technology, however, this patient would have needed to drive 4 hours round-trip for each appointment.

Our colleagues in rural communities and at lower-level hospitals can use telehealth and telemedicine as aids in treating their high-risk patients, such as those with preeclampsia, prematurity risk, or other conditions. Physicians can consult with specialists through a face-to-face conversation that takes place through telecommunications. The result is that the quality of care for women in our communities is improved.

Genetic counseling, infertility consultation, and fetal anomaly management are some of the other applications. Our task force is discussing different ways to improve patient care and ways to collaborate with our colleagues around the country. Ultimately, we are developing best practices—a model for the best uses of technology to improve women’s health care in the United States.

Task force focus: Telehealth technology, billing, services

Dr. Brown: Our task force, a diverse group of members from all over the country, represents the spectrum of ObGyns. Although task force members have various levels of telehealth experience, all are very interested in these new channels of communication. The task force also includes billers, who understand billing ramifications, and payers, who know firsthand what will and will not be paid.

Technology and its availability is the most important topic for the task force. While some communities have Internet service, not all do. We need to determine which areas need service, how much it would cost, and who pays for it. Can a hospital afford it? A practice? Their partners? Identifying partners in tertiary care settings is a task force goal.

We are engaging a broad range of experts to study all the components and associated costs of technology, licensing, and cross-state credentialing. Gathering this information will help in developing a best practices model that general ObGyns can use.

Telehealth is redefining aspects of care: prenatal care (how many visits are required?), postpartum care, and other types of services that can be done remotely. Genetic counseling—who can provide it, what education is required—is another topic of discussion. Once we surmount the billing obstacles, we can do much with teleconferencing, such as provide genetic consultation with ObGyns in various settings.

Telehealth and telemedicine: Similar, but different

The terms "telehealth" and "telemedicine" are often used interchangeably. Telemedicine is the older phrase, while telehealth entered the vernacular more recently and encompasses a broader definition.

The HealthIT.gov website explains the differences in terminology this way1:

  • The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the Internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.
  • Telehealth is different from telemedicine because it refers to a broader scope of remote health care services than telemedicine. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote nonclinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.

A World Health Organization report, however, uses the 2 terms synonymously and interchangeably, defining telemedicine as2:

  • The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities.

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) describes their use of the terms this way3:

  • ATA largely views telemedicine and telehealth to be interchangeable terms, encompassing a wide definition of remote healthcare, although telehealth may not always involve clinical care.


References

  1. HealthIT.gov website. Frequently asked questions. https://www.healthit.gov/providers-professionals/frequently-asked-questi.... Accessed November 15, 2017.
  2. World Health Organization. Telemedicine: opportunities and developments in member states. 2010. http://www.who.int/goe/publications/goe_telemedicine_2010.pdf. Accessed November 15, 2017.
  3. American Telemedicine Association. About telemedicine: the ultimate frontier for superior healthcare delivery. http://www.americantelemed.org/about/about-telemedicine. Accessed November 15, 2017.

Learn about ways clinicians can use telemedicine.

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