What's the Difference Between Telehealth and In-Person Care?

As the digital wave sweeps through the healthcare landscape, rushing into urgent care upon the first signs of a cold or booking a last-minute appointment for a routine check-up may soon become a thing of the past. Telehealth, with its promise of virtual consultations and remote health monitoring, presents a convenient alternative to the traditional in-person visit. But in the ever-evolving healthcare industry, how do you know whether you should take advantage of telehealth or seek in-person care instead?

What is telehealth?

Telehealth, also often referred to as telemedicine, offers healthcare services remotely by leveraging technology and virtual communication modalities. It breaks down geographical barriers, allowing patients and healthcare providers to connect and securely discuss medical information without the need for a clinic or hospital visit.

Telehealth services predominantly fall into three categories:

  • Synchronous. It involves real-time communication between the patient and the healthcare provider, typically through video, voice calls, or chats in app or via a webpage. Chats may or may not be live and in real time.
  • Asynchronous. It's also known as 'store-and-forward' telehealth and allows patients to share medical images, test results, or descriptions of symptoms with their provider, who can then review the information at a later time and respond with appropriate treatment or potential prescriptions.
  • Remote patient monitoring. It enables providers to monitor patients' health data remotely, using wearable devices like smartwatches or continuous glucose monitors. Seeing how a patient’s data changes over time inspires a data-driven approach that builds the foundation for developing a more personalized treatment protocol as opposed to going with general recommendations.

What is in-person care?

In contrast to telehealth, in-person care is still considered 'traditional healthcare,' and requires a physical presence of both the patient and provider. Patients must visit a medical facility, like a clinic or hospital, to consult with a medical professional face-to-face. In-person care may involve:

  • Physical examinations. A medical professional may conduct comprehensive physical examinations, such as checking blood pressure, palpating the abdomen, or listening to the heart and lungs.
  • Diagnostic testing. An in-person visit may involve doing blood work, imaging tests, or other diagnostic procedures. However, with a growing number of at-home test kits involving a finger prick and urine or stool test, certain diagnostics and lab tests are also available in a telehealth setting.
  • Surgeries. Any surgical procedures, minor or major, require in-person care.

What are the differences between telehealth and in-person care?

While telehealth and in-person care share the overarching goal of providing quality healthcare, there are key differences. Whether you need to refill a prescription, consult about a lingering symptom, or are interested in speaking to a mental health professional, the choice between telehealth and in-person care hinges on factors such as accessibility, personal preference, and the nature of your healthcare needs. By understanding these distinctions, you can make an informed decision that prioritizes both convenience and quality.

Communication methods

In-person care traditionally involves face-to-face consultations, allowing direct physical examinations and procedures. On the other hand, telehealth utilizes digital and virtual platforms, relying on video calls, phone calls, or in-app messaging systems.

Accessibility and convenience

Telehealth’s popularity increased due to its accessibility and convenience, particularly beneficial for individuals living in remote or rural areas or those with mobility issues. It eliminates the need for a lengthy commute, waiting in crowded rooms, or aligning schedules to clinic hours. Conversely, in-person care might require significant time and effort, especially if you live far from a healthcare facility.

Range of services

While telehealth can address a myriad of health concerns, it can’t replace all medical services. A patient with a condition (acute or chroinc) that requires physical examinations, complex diagnostic procedures, or immediate emergency care still needs to see a medical professional in person to receive adequate care. In some chronic conditions, the initial diagnoses, tests and the prescription of a new or recurring medication may also require an in-person visit. However, telehealth may then serve as an efficient and convenient solution for follow-up consultations.

Additionally, whether the case is chronic or acute health concern, a telehealth appointment may be a helpful option for a consultation prior to an in-person visit. Thus, the healthcare provider can point the patient to the right direction whether it's getting certain lab tests done or seeking out a specialist.

Personal interaction

The level of personal interaction in telehealth can vary, depending largely on the medium of communication. While in-app messaging or voice calls may feel less personal, a video consultation may come very close to what it’d be like to interact with a medical professional in person. In-person care, on the other hand, inherently includes a face-to-face interaction, which some patients may feel more comfortable with.

Technology requirements

Telehealth is dependent on access to reliable internet connection and devices such as smartphones, tablets, or computers, which might pose a challenge for some patient populations. In comparison, in-person care has no such technological barriers.

Privacy and security issues

While both telehealth and in-person care must comply with privacy laws and regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States, the digital nature of telehealth may raise additional concerns about data security and confidentiality. Since patient data is transmitted and stored electronically, there are potential risks for vulnerabilities. Hence, why telehealth providers utilize strict deidentifying protocols and secure systems to help safeguard sensitive patient information from unauthorized access or breaches.

What are the advantages of telehealth?

Telehealth presents several advantages over traditional in-person care. As technology continues to advance and telehealth becomes more integrated into healthcare systems, these benefits will likely continue to grow, improving the way patients receive and engage with healthcare services and participate in their own health journey.

  • Cost-effectiveness. Telehealth visits are typically less expensive than in-person consultations. As it becomes more mainstream, many insurance providers, including Medicaid and some private insurers, start to cover telehealth services. However, these do tend to vary from state to state. Additionally, telehealth eliminates extra costs related to travel or time requested off work.
  • Time-saving and convenience. Telehealth offers the luxury to consult with a healthcare provider from anywhere, and with some providers, at any time. You can say goodbye to driving through rush hour, sitting around in waiting rooms, and using PTO hours. Telehealth brings healthcare to the patient’s terms, making it more convenient than ever. This convenience extends to providers as well, who can efficiently manage their schedules without the constraints of physical locations.
  • Accessibility for remote areas. Lack of access to healthcare in rural communities has been a significant contributor to poor health outcomes, according to research. One in five Americans lives in rural areas, and research shows that “compared to those living in urban areas, rural residents have higher rates of mortality from heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, stroke, and unintentional injury which are the five leading causes of death in the U.S.,” according to a report from the Health Resources & Services Administration. Telehealth helps bridge that gap and provides access to healthcare to individuals living in remote areas or those with mobility issues, who otherwise might struggle to receive quality care.
  • Extended specialist access. Telehealth can facilitate consultations with specialists who might not be available locally. Thus, it expands the reach of specialist care, offering patients access to a diverse network of professionals. Patients have the opportunity to schedule a tele-visit with specialists from various fields, including cardiology, neurology, dermatology, and mental health. This access to a broader range of expertise may enhance patient care and ensure timely and even preventive interventions for medical conditions.

What are the advantages of in-person care?

White telehealth ticks many boxes for quality healthcare delivery, in-person care continues to be an essential component, providing distinct advantages that complement the benefits of telehealth.

  • Accurate diagnosis and treatment. Physical examinations may often lead to more accurate diagnoses and treatments, and the provider may notice additional irregularities during a face-to-face visit that they would otherwise miss via a virtual one. Hands-on assessments, such as listening to heart and lung sounds, palpating for abnormalities, and observing physical symptoms, may lead to more accurate diagnoses.
  • Personalized patient experience. In-person visits foster a more personalized and empathetic patient experience. Face-to-face interactions allow for non-verbal communication cues, such as facial expressions and body language, which contribute to a deeper understanding between patients and healthcare providers. This personal connection may help build trust and rapport and make patients feel more reassured and cared for when they have the opportunity for direct, in-person interactions with their providers. An exploratory qualitative study has shown that patients with chronic conditions or those who require complex care highly value clinicians who demonstrate emotional concern for them. Such emotional support may not come across via an in-app messaging software or even a voice call.
  • Immediate emergency care. In cases of emergencies, in-person care is indispensable. Emergency departments and urgent care facilities provide immediate access to life-saving treatments, diagnostics, and interventions. Whether it’s X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, certain severe injuries, acute illnesses, and medical emergencies require swift and hands-on medical attention, especially in critical moments when every second counts.

How to choose the one that’s right for me?

Whether it’s a sore throat, a skin rash, or a lingering cough, making the right decision between telehealth and in-person care is key to ensuring you’ll receive adequate care. While telehealth may often sound the most convenient, it’s important to consider a few more factors before making a decision:

  • The type of care needed. Different types of healthcare services lend themselves better to either telehealth or in-person care. If you’re seeking mental health counseling, a routine follow-up, medication management, or lifestyle consultations, then telehealth is a well-suited option. These appointments can often be conducted effectively and conveniently through virtual platforms at a time that works best for you. However, if you need physical examinations, vaccinations, wound care, or procedures requiring medical equipment, skipping an in-person visit is not ideal.
  • Preference for personal interaction. The beauty of these two healthcare delivery methods is that, in many cases, you have the option to choose. Some individuals value the convenience and efficiency of telehealth, appreciating the ability to receive care from the comfort of their homes. Others may prefer the personal interaction and hands-on approach of in-person care, finding comfort in face-to-face consultations with medical professionals. Consider whether you value the human connection and the physical presence of your primary care physician during your appointments or would rather schedule a tele-visit at your convenience.
  • Accessibility and convenience. With in-person care, there are several aspects that are out of your control — the number of patients before you in the waiting room, traffic, and whether you can take time off work to go to the clinic. So, if you live in a rural community, run a busy life, or are traveling, telehealth makes it convenient to access healthcare services remotely.

The future of healthcare

As healthcare continues to evolve, we may witness an integration of telehealth and in-person care. As technology advances and patient preferences lean toward convenience and efficiency, telehealth is set to become an increasingly prominent component of healthcare, enhancing accessibility, convenience, and quality of care for a wider patient population.

According to a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, there will be three major shifts in healthcare within the next decade. First, a growth in hospital-at-home programs as they improve health outcomes at lower costs and with higher patient satisfaction. Second, many hospitalizations may be preventable through improved personalized medicine’s ability to predict and prevent acute complications of chronic disease. And third, telemedicine and advances in digital health will allow for hospital-level care delivery in the patient’s home.

The decision between telehealth and in-person care is a new-age dilemma, with each offering distinct advantages and potential challenges. Your individual healthcare needs, comfort with technology,y and personal preferences should all weigh in your decision-making process. However, as digital health advances, we may see a seamless integration of telehealth and in-person care with the promise to enhance accessibility, convenience, and efficiency with a strong emphasis on preventive and patient-centered care.

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