New Horizons for Telehealth in Occupational Medicine

While the ‘human element’ will always be a critical factor in the provision of quality healthcare and treatment, the healthcare industry continues to evolve within today’s technologically advancing context with a focus on clinical safety, quality improvement and privacy and confidentiality to ultimately deliver improved healthcare and health outcomes for all.

The Evolving Realm of Digital Health

The term ‘Digital Health’ is becoming widely recognised as representing the technological change that encompasses every aspect of healthcare including prevention, diagnosis, management and treatment, as well as transforming the creation, delivery and measurement of frontline healthcare services (ANDHealth 2018).

Health and technology have already combined their powers to create the likes of surgical robots, medical devices and 3D printing of body parts in recent times (Deakin University 2019). This intersection of health and technology has also brought about exciting opportunities through the emergence of many more digital health categories including;

·        mobile health (mHealth)

·        health information technology (IT)

·        wearable devices

·        telehealth and telemedicine

·        and personalized medicine (ANDHealth 2018).

Our ever-increasing use of technologies such as smartphones, social networks and applications is not only changing the way we communicate, but is also providing the means to enable patients and consumers to better manage and track their health-related activities, ultimately improving their own healthcare and health outcomes (ANDHealth 2018).

What is Telehealth & Telemedicine?

Healthcare consumers are increasingly looking online for solutions to their health queries and in some cases, are using technology to take control of their health. This is making Telehealth a valuable player in the new realm of digital health. (ANDHealth 2018).

“Telehealth” is used as an umbrella term that encompasses;

·        virtual visits

·        remote patient monitoring

·        mobile health applications

·        online patient education

·        follow up visits

·        Store-and-forward (collecting clinical data and sending it electronically to the provider for evaluation)

·        and the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical healthcare (Norwood 2019).

What Telehealth means for Occupational Health & Medicine

The management of workers’ chronic diseases and varying health issues, an aging workforce, on-the-job injuries and resulting absenteeism presents a volatile and cost-laden environment for employers across all industries (Baker 2018).

Employers are therefore looking to new ways of managing these issues while improving productivity and the health of their workers. As such, Telehealth holds great potential for reducing employee’s time away from work while increasing the speed in which an injury can be evaluated, managed and monitored (Baker 2018).

For example;

  • Warehouse worker experiencing lower back pain – A phone app could record the incident with the worker’s compensation payer while requesting a consultation with a GP or Occupational Physician. The phone app could connect the Doctor and patient in real-time and the video interaction could be recorded and stored.
  • Pipeline worker experiencing a sprained wrist – A smartphone app could connect him or her with a doctor who can assess the situation while referring the worker to have x-rays or other relevant scans done at the nearest healthcare facility.
  • Diabetic truck driver on the road – A telehealth application could help proactively monitor diabetes insulin levels and suggest proactive strategies for better maintaining employee health (Baker 2018).

Telemedicine can be incorporated into policy and practice by employers as a way of educating, motivating, providing and tracking necessary treatment for worker’s in ways that can save on overall employer costs while increasing worker compliance (Baker 2018).

While the virtual management of worker injuries and health issues isn’t appropriate in every case, the use of Telehealth technologies does pose significant potential to coordinate better collaboration between stakeholders regarding patient treatment and the ongoing management of their medical issues.

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