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A Quandary: Is it Telemedicine or Telehealth?

I sincerely hope that it will not require knowledge of Quantum theory to establish a differentiation between telemedicine and telehealth.

Published: January 11, 2020

By: Robert M. Blumm, PA, DFAAPA, PA-C Emeritus

Telemedicine or Telehealth

What is Telemedicine and Telehealth?

I sincerely hope that it will not require knowledge of Quantum theory to establish a differentiation between these two terms.

However, in the malpractice insurance arena, this happens to be the case at the moment. In a recent article titled Telemedicine vs Telehealth: What’s the Difference? Andrea Smith made this opening statement:

“The intersection of medicine and technology can be a confusing place. Policymakers, vendors and advocacy groups often use imprecise language or employ technical terms inconsistently.”

Although the terms telemedicine and telehealth are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between the two.  

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Definition of Telehealth & Telemedicine

Telehealth consists of a broad range of technologies – from provider training to order sets, medical education & administrative communications, and a range of non-clinical elements related to patient care.

Telemedicine, as many see it, consists of patient diagnostic software and a Skype-type of communication – to actually render full examinations and clinical care – including prescriptions and referrals to specialists and hospitals, if the patient has an emergency.

Additionally, the World Health Organization uses a hybrid/third title for these two (Telemedicine and Telehealth): Telematics. This is because both function to compliment our current state of healthcare, prevent in-patient visits, and perform many aspects of health management.

In short, all telemedicine is telehealth, but not all telehealth is telemedicine.

Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why this emerging specialty is causing so much misunderstanding in the insurance industry, which by its very legal and actuarial nature, is defined by distinct language and clarity. It will be up to you, healthcare providers and clinicians, to establish clear and comprehensive definitions for the insurance industry. 

Proper guidance from the medical community to inform underwriting protocols will be the key to liability protection.

Risks of Telemedicine

Recently, a disaster occurred when a 43-year-old woman contacted a nurse on a “telehealth” website to report symptoms of cough, sore throat, fever, and chest pain. She was told that she should rest, take NSAIDS, and return the call if there was no improvement.

The nurse received a second call with the same unchanged symptoms and notified the patient that she would contact a physician and that this was probably influenza, requiring rest and no antiviral treatment because of its relatively short, three-day duration at the time. A physician never accessed the case for review.

When the patient’s husband, a trucker, returned from a three-day trip to observe his wife’s condition, he brought her to an emergency department immediately. Upon admission, they discovered that she had pneumonia – with sepsis.  The patient expired in the hospital. The judgement was $2.7 million against the telehealth service that provided treatment guidance regarding medical care.

Whatever we decide to call this type of service is irrelevant, as the court considered it malpractice. Such situations can occur whenever additional providers are brought on to a patient’s clinical team. In this case, the physician did not appreciate the urgency of a medical emergency sitting in his in-box.

Similarly, a relative of mine had a two-week cardiac test and waited six weeks without a response. At her next office appointment, the provider glibly mentioned that it was probably on his desk “with all the others” which he hadn’t yet found time to review.

You can well imagine the confusion insurance underwriters face with such perplexing situations and liability claims?

Liability Coverage for Telemedicine

During a few recent visits to social media sites, I noticed clinicians asking about insurance for telemedicine. To my knowledge, such coverage does exist, but it’s governed not only by the insurance underwriting company, but also the state laws in which healthcare is provided.

Some companies do offer coverage for telemedicine, though its availability can depend on one’s healthcare specialty and their state of practice, while other companies simply decline such coverage. Why? Because this form of medicine is still in its infancy, with too many uncertain (read: high risk) parameters to distinguish.

Can this specialty be covered on a Family Practice policy? No. Can you use your Emergency Medicine policy? Unlikely, as telemedicine is not is not defined as an “emergency” service, though as mentioned earlier, state laws vary in definitions of such language.

But if you wish to be a pioneer in this specialty which promises to have great growth potential, you can be assured that CM&F Group, Inc. – the country’s leading healthcare professional liability experts – can and will provide the most comprehensive guidance and coverages available.

I encourage all those who are investigating telemedicine to maintain a positive attitude as this platform has great potential to engage experienced providers – at virtually any chapter in their professional lives – even into retirement.

And for our PA colleagues who work in telemedicine, I encourage you to prepare to join the brand-new AAPA Special Interest Group, PAs in Virtual Medicine and Telemedicine (PAVMT) and, after doing so, commit that malpractice insurance be your #1 agenda item!

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